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U.S. works to prevent an escalation across the Mideast as Biden pushes Israel to show restraint

President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, April 12, 2024, enroute to New Castle, Del. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, April 12, 2024, enroute to New Castle, Del. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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WASHINGTON -

The United States on Sunday highlighted its role in helping Israel thwart Iran's aerial attack as President Joe Biden convened leaders of the Group of Seven countries in an effort to prevent a wider regional escalation and coordinate a global rebuke of Tehran.

The U.S. assisted Israel in shooting down dozens of drones and missiles fired by Iran on Saturday in what was the first time it had launched a direct military assault on Israel. Israeli authorities said 99 per cent of the inbound weapons were shot down without causing any significant damage.

U.S. officials said that despite the high interception rate, Iran's intent was to "destroy and cause casualties" and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an "uncontrollable" escalation across the Mideast. U.S. officials said Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an effort to contain tensions, that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran, and the president made "very clear" to Netanyahu "that we do have to think carefully and strategically" about risks of escalation.

The push to encourage Israel to show restraint mirrored ongoing American efforts to curtail Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza, which is now in its seventh month, and to do more to protect civilian lives in the territory.

While the U.S. and its allies were preparing for days for such an attack, the launches were at the "high end" of what was anticipated, according to the officials, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles from Iran were in the air simultaneously with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said. Biden and senior officials monitored the firings and interception attempts in real time in the White House Situation Room. The officials said there was "relief" in the room once they saw that the missile defence efforts had succeeded.

A senior U.S. military official said American aircraft shot down more than 70 drones and cruise missiles, while U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea downed between four and six ballistic missiles, and an American Patriot missile battery in Iraq shot down one more.

"At my direction, to support the defence of Israel, the U.S. military moved aircraft and ballistic missile defence destroyers to the region over the course of the past week," Biden said in a statement late Saturday. "Thanks to these deployments and the extraordinary skill of our servicemembers, we helped Israel take down nearly all of the incoming drones and missiles."

Administration officials said the call demonstrated that despite differences over the war in Gaza, the U.S. commitment to Israel's defence was "ironclad" and that the U.S. would mount a similar effort again if needed.

The officials rejected the notion that Iran intentionally gave Israel and the U.S. time to prepare for an attack, but said they took advantage of the time Iran needed before it was ready to launch the assault to prepare their response. The officials said Iran passed word to the U.S. while the attack was unfolding late Saturday that what was seen was the totality of their response. The message was sent through the Swiss government since the two countries don't have direct diplomatic ties.

Biden, in a Saturday evening call with Netanyahu, urged that Israel claim victory for its defence prowess as the president aimed to persuade America's closest Middle East ally not to undertake a larger retaliatory strike against Iran, the officials said.

"I told him that Israel demonstrated a remarkable capacity to defend against and defeat even unprecedented attacks -- sending a clear message to its foes that they cannot effectively threaten the security of Israel," Biden said in his statement after the call.

Biden had a call Sunday with Jordan's King Abdullah II in which the king said any "escalatory measures" by Israel would lead to a broader conflict in the region, according to the Royal Court. The White House said the situation in Gaza was discussed, and the leaders reaffirmed their cooperation "to find a path to end the crisis as soon as possible."

The president also spoke with some of the U.S. forces involved in shooting down the Iranian drones.

After the G7 videoconference Sunday, the leaders issued a joint statement "unequivocally condemning in the strongest terms" the direct attack by Iran while expressing "our full solidarity and support to Israel" and reaffirming "our commitment towards its security."

The group of advanced democracies -- the U.S., Italy, Japan, Germany, France, Britain and Canada -- also said that Iran, "with its actions, has further stepped toward the destabilization of the region and risks provoking an uncontrollable regional escalation." They said their nations "stand ready to take further measures now and in response to further destabilizing initiatives."

A senior U.S. administration official said some of the countries discussed listing Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and unlocking further sanctions against Tehran, though no final decisions were made.

The Israel-Hamas war was referenced in the G7 statement, with the leaders saying they will bolster "our cooperation to end the crisis in Gaza, including by continuing to work towards an immediate and sustainable ceasefire and the release of hostages by Hamas, and deliver increased humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in need."

Speaking before a meeting Sunday of the United Nations Security Council, U.S. deputy ambassador Robert Wood reaffirmed the administration's "ironclad support for the defence of Israel."

"In coming days, and in consultation with other member states, the United States will explore additional measures to hold Iran accountable here at the United Nations," Wood said, calling for immediate Security Council condemnation of the Iranian attack.

The U.S. and Israel had been bracing for an attack for days after Iran said it would retaliate for a suspected Israeli strike this month on an Iranian consular building in Syria that killed 12 people, including two senior Iranian generals in the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, criticized the White House for "leaking it to the press" that Biden told Netanyahu to take the win and not retaliate.

Rubio told CNN's "State of the Union" that it was "part of the White House's efforts to appease" people calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

AP writer Michael Weissenstein at the United Nations contributed.

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