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Kataib Hezbollah Should Take US Warning ‘Seriously,’ White House Says

Relatives grieve during a funeral of a fighter with the Kataib Hezbollah who was killed in a US airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 25, 2024.
Relatives grieve during a funeral of a fighter with the Kataib Hezbollah who was killed in a US airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 25, 2024.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby warned that Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group based in Iraq, should take "seriously" the Biden administration's determination to respond to Sunday's drone attack by Iran-backed militants that killed three American soldiers on a U.S. base in Jordan.

VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara spoke with Kirby following Kataib Hezbollah's Tuesday announcement that it is suspending all military operations against American troops in the region. Kirby also discussed the war in Gaza and other challenges the U.S. is facing around the world.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: Do you attribute Kataib Hezbollah’s announcement to stop attacking U.S. troops in the region to the president firmly signaling that he is ready for a response?

JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: It's hard to know exactly why Kataib Hezbollah put that statement out. They should take seriously the determination of the United States and President [Joe] Biden to do what we have to do to protect our troops, our facilities, our interests in the region. They should take that very seriously.

VOA: You're not attributing the attack to them. You're attributing it to their umbrella group, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq?

KIRBY: The Intelligence community's comfortable with an assessment that it was the umbrella group, Islamic Resistance in Iraq, that was responsible for this attack. And as you know, there's several groups that are participants under that moniker.

VOA: And combining that answer with your statement that the U.S. response will be multitiered over a period of time, can we assume that what the president intends to do is striking different Iran-backed proxies in the region over time?

KIRBY: I won't get into the specific actions we're going to take and what the response looks like. The first thing that you see will not be the last thing that you see.

VOA: You also said that striking these Iran-backed proxies won't jeopardize any kind of hostage negotiations with Hamas, but don't these groups have the same ideology?

KIRBY: What I said was, there's no reason for what we're doing to protect our troops and our facilities to impact the negotiations that we're having to try to get another hostage deal in place, and we believe both are important to do. And we're pressing forward with both.

VOA: Are you saying one goal wouldn’t complicate the other?

KIRBY: I'm saying there's no reason for there to be an effect on the hostage negotiations that we're in, by a response to this terrible attack which killed three American soldiers.

VOA: U.S. funding for UNRWA won't start until there are fundamental changes in the agency. Those fundamental changes could take a while to implement. What is the U.S. prepared to do in the meantime? Stand by and allow war orphans to starve?

KIRBY: Of course not, and we are the world's leading nation when it comes to getting humanitarian assistance [to] the people of Gaza. And UNRWA does essential work on the ground in Gaza. Make no mistake about it, they're helping save thousands of lives. They are the prime distributor of aid and assistance inside Gaza, and we recognize that.

We want them to take this seriously. Unacceptable that any employee of UNRWA could be involved in the attacks on October 7, but we're going to wait and see how the investigation goes. We're going to wait and see what kind of accountability measures the U.N. and UNRWA, specifically, are willing to put in place. But we're going to continue to do everything we can to get the security assistance into Gaza. And we certainly want the vast majority of UNRWA employees, who have no connection to Hamas, to be able to continue to do their job.

VOA: But you are admitting that stopping U.S. funding is impacting their work, no?

KIRBY: It’s only affecting the work that we were doing in Jordan. The suspension has nothing to do with Gaza. The money that we have left to spend — that we suspended — has been already pre-earmarked by UNRWA for use in Jordan, not for use in Gaza.

VOA: I'm going to move on to Ukraine funding. It appears that House Republicans are rejecting any kind of border compromise, because they don't really want to give the president a win in an election year.

KIRBY: I certainly can't talk about election politics or what may be behind the motivations here. It's critical that we get this funding for Ukraine, for Israel, for the Indo-Pacific, and certainly for border security.

The president is negotiating in good faith on the Senate side. We believe those discussions are going well, and we hope to get a resolution here relatively soon. Now, what happens in the House is going to be up to Speaker [Mike] Johnson, and Speaker Johnson has not been consistent in what he says he wants to see at the border. So, I would point people to him. He has to speak for the inconsistencies in his messaging. But we are negotiating in good faith. We believe those negotiations are making progress, and that's what we're focused on.

VOA: Are you still sticking to that approach? Would you consider sending a new stand-alone bill just for Ukraine?

KIRBY: I don't want to get ahead of where we are. I mean, we are in the midst of negotiations right now that are not over. So, I wouldn't want to get into speculating about what hypotheticals might happen as a result.

VOA: Can you confirm reporting that Chinese President Xi Jinping promised President Biden that China will not meddle in U.S. elections?

KIRBY: We gave a full summary of that meeting. The president talked to you all after he met with President Xi. I don't have any additional context to share. All I can tell you is that we take the soundness of our election system here in the United States very, very seriously. And we've been clear publicly, and we've been clear privately with interlocutors all around the world that we will do what we have to do to make sure that our elections are free and fair. And they have been, and they will continue to be.

VOA: But just today, Christopher Ray, the FBI director, gave testimony in Congress that Chinese hackers might be targeting U.S. infrastructure, targeting all sorts of things that may disrupt even the election. How do you square that?

KIRBY: I won't speak to specific threats. All I can tell you is we take them seriously. We do everything we can to preserve critical infrastructure, and in the president's mind, our election system is critical infrastructure.

VOA: A new report released by the U.N. sanctions monitoring team today says that al-Qaida has established eight new training camps and a new base to stockpile weaponry in Afghanistan. Are you aware, and are you countering?

KIRBY: I think we're just aware of this report. We haven't worked our way all the way through it. But I think it's important to remember that al-Qaida is a vastly diminished organization in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In fact, the real threat from al-Qaida is the way it's metastasized into other groups elsewhere in the region, like al-Shabab in Somalia.

VOA: Are you downplaying the threat?

KIRBY: Of course not. We're not downplaying any terrorist threat anywhere in the world. Those three American soldiers that were killed were involved in helping our counter ISIS coalition, which is still active in Iraq and Syria. I don't think the record bears out that we've been light on terrorist networks at all, killing [al-Qaida chief Ayman] al-Zawahiri and other leaders in ISIS in just recent weeks and months. What I'm saying is, this is a report we haven't worked our way through right now, and the intelligence community, their assessment is that al-Qaida does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. soil.

VOA: Tomorrow, the president will participate in the dignified transfer of the three American soldiers who died in Jordan. How do you think that will impact Americans’ thinking about the conflict in the Middle East?

KIRBY: I hope it underscores Americans' gratitude for the service, and in many cases, the sacrifice that American men and women in uniform are demonstrating on their behalf, to keep them safe. And that's certainly the case with these three brave individuals who aren't going to make it back home alive to their families.

And I hope it's also a reminder of how diligently President Biden is working to keep the conflict between Israel and Hamas from escalating and widening into a broader regional conflict. We don't seek a war with Iran. We don't want to see a broader conflict, and almost everything the president has done since the seventh of October has been designed to prevent that from happening.