Lloyd Austin
Lloyd AustinREUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday that it is time to further disable Iran-backed militias that have struck at US forces and ships in the Middle East, adding the US is preparing to take significant action in response to the deaths of three service members in Jordan, The Associated Press reported.

"At this point, it's time to take away even more capability than we've taken in the past," Austin said in his first press conference since he was hospitalized on January 1 due to complications from prostate cancer treatment.

While Iran has denied involvement in the strikes, Austin said Thursday that "how much Iran knew or didn't know, we don't know. But it really doesn't matter because Iran sponsors these groups."

Austin said "without that facilitation, these kinds of things don't happen." He added that the Pentagon is still looking at the forensics of the drone that struck Tower 22, a secretive base in northeastern Jordan that's been crucial to the American presence in neighboring Syria.

"I don't think the adversaries are of a ‘one and done’ mindset. And so they have a lot of capability. I have a lot more," Austin said. "We're going to do what's necessary to protect our troops."

His comments follow a report in CBS News which said that the US has approved plans for a series of strikes in response to drone and rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militias on US forces in the Middle East, including the one that killed the three US service members.

On Tuesday, the most powerful Iran-backed militia in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, announced that it would suspend its attacks against US forces in the region.

The group is considered the most powerful armed faction in Iraq and is an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias in the country. US strikes have targeted Kataib Hezbollah in the past and has specifically singled it out as likely to have carried out the deadly attack on Sunday.

Asked about the statement, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a briefing Tuesday, “We’ve seen those reports. I don’t have a specific comment to provide other than actions speak louder than words.”