U.S. plans to counter Iran with jets, 1,500 troops

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY SU­SAN­NAH GE­ORGE AND LOLITA C. BAL­DOR

WASHINGTON — The U.S. will send hun­dreds of ad­di­tional troops and a dozen fighter jets to the Mid­dle East in the com­ing weeks to counter what the Pen­tagon said is an es­ca­lat­ing cam­paign by Iran to plan at­tacks against the

U.S. and its in­ter­ests in the re­gion. And for the first time, Pen­tagon of­fi­cials on Fri­day pub­licly blamed

Iran and its prox­ies for re­cent tanker bomb­ings near United Arab Emi­rates and a rocket at­tack in Iraq.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump told re­porters Fri­day that the 1,500 troops would have a “mostly pro­tec­tive” role as part of a build-up that be­gan this month in re­sponse to what the U.S said was a threat from Iran.

The an­nounce­ment caps three weeks of elevated ten­sions with Iran, as the ad­min­is­tra­tion hurled ac­cu­sa­tions of an im­mi­nent at­tack and abruptly de­ployed Navy war­ships to the re­gion. The moves

alarmed mem­bers of Congress, who de­manded proof and de­tails, amid fears the U.S. was lurch­ing to­ward open con­flict with Iran.

Adding to the un­cer­tainty, Trump al­ter­nated be­tween tough talk to­ward Iran and a more con­cil­ia­tory mes­sage, in­sist­ing he is open to ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Is­lamic Repub­lic.

On Fri­day he seemed to down­play the prospect of con­flict when he spoke at the White House.

“Right now, I don’t think Iran wants to fight, and I cer­tainly don’t think they want to fight with us,” he said.

In a re­lated move, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on Fri­day used an emer­gency le­gal loop­hole to move ahead with the sale of $7 bil­lion in pre­ci­sion-guided mu­ni­tions and other mil­i­tary sup­port to Saudi Ara­bia, cit­ing threats the king­dom faces from Iran.

Vice Ad­mi­ral Michael Gil­day told Pen­tagon re­porters that the U.S. has “very high con­fi­dence” that Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard was re­spon­si­ble for the ex­plo­sions on four tankers, and that Ira­nian prox­ies in Iraq fired rock­ets into Bagh­dad. He said Iran also tried to de­ploy mod­i­fied small boats that were ca­pa­ble of launch­ing cruise mis­siles.

The de­ploy­ments an­nounced Fri­day in­clude a squadron of 12 fighter jets, manned and un­manned sur­veil­lance air­craft, and a num­ber of mil­i­tary en­gi­neers to beef up pro­tec­tion for forces. In ad­di­tion a bat­tal­ion of four Pa­triot mis­sile bat­ter­ies that was sched­uled to leave the Mid­dle East has been or­dered to stay. The to­tal num­ber of troops in­volved is about 1,500, with roughly 600 in­cluded in the Pa­triot bat­tal­ion. None of those troops will go to ei­ther Iraq or Syria.

“We are go­ing to be send­ing a rel­a­tively small num­ber of troops, mostly pro­tec­tive,” the pres­i­dent said at the White House be­fore setting off on a trip to Ja­pan. “Some very tal­ented peo­ple are go­ing to the Mid­dle East right now and we’ll see what hap­pens.”

Brief­ing re­porters at the Pen­tagon, Gil­day, the Joint Staff di­rec­tor, did not pro­vide direct ev­i­dence to back up claims ty­ing Iran to the at­tacks. He told re­porters the con­clu­sions were based on in­tel­li­gence and ev­i­dence

gath­ered in the re­gion, and of­fi­cials said they are try­ing to de­clas­sify some of the in­for­ma­tion so that it could be made pub­lic.

“This is truly op­er­a­tions driven by in­tel­li­gence,” Gil­day said, adding that the U.S. con­tin­ues to see in­tel­li­gence sug­gest­ing that Iran is ac­tively plan­ning at­tacks against the U.S. and part­ners in the re­gion by the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard and Ira­nian prox­ies in Ye­men and Iraq.

When pressed for proof of Iran’s in­volve­ment, he said the mines used in the tanker at­tacks were at­trib­uted di­rectly to the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard and he said threats could be traced back to se­nior lead­ers in Iran.

“I’m not re­verse en­gi­neer­ing this,” he said. “The Ira­ni­ans have said pub­licly they were go­ing to do things. We learn more through in­tel­li­gence re­port­ing. They have acted upon those threats and they’ve ac­tu­ally at­tacked.”

The an­nounce­ment of ad­di­tional forces was met with mixed re­views.

The chair­man of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, Demo­crat Adam Smith of Washington, called the build-up “un­set­tling.”

“Lead­ers from both sides of the aisle have called for de-es­ca­la­tion. At first blush, this move does not fit the bill,” Smith said in a state­ment Fri­day. “Without a clearly ar­tic­u­lated strat­egy, adding more per­son­nel and mis­sion sys­tems seems un­wise, and ap­pears to be a bla­tant and heavy-handed move to fur­ther es­ca­late ten­sions with Iran.”

The se­nior Repub­li­can on the com­mit­tee, Mac Thorn­berry of Texas, called it “a pru­dent step to pro­tect our forces and de­ter Iran,” and said re­quests from com­man­ders should “never be sub­ject to a par­ti­san de­bate.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion no­ti­fied Congress ear­lier in the day about the troop plans.

Gil­day and Katie Wheel­barger, the act­ing as­sis­tant de­fense sec­re­tary for in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, said the mis­sion is strictly de­fen­sive, and is not de­signed to pro­voke Iran into car­ry­ing out ad­di­tional at­tacks. They said the Pen­tagon will con­tinue to eval­u­ate the num­ber of troops in the re­gion in case more are needed later.

Ear­lier this week, of­fi­cials said mil­i­tary plan­ners had out­lined op­tions that could have sent up to

10,000 mil­i­tary re­in­force­ments to the re­gion. Act­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Pa­trick Shana­han later said plan­ners hadn’t set­tled on a fig­ure.

The U.S. has about 70,000 troops across the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing at a ma­jor Navy base in Bahrain and an Air Force base and op­er­a­tions cen­ter in Qatar. There are about 5,200 troops in Iraq and 2,000 in Syria.

Ear­lier this month, the U.S. sent thou­sands more into the re­gion around Iran, in­clud­ing an air­craft car­rier strike group, four bomber air­craft, a Pa­triot mis­sile bat­tery and fighter jets.

Ten­sion had been rising with Iran for more than a year. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion with­drew last year from the 2015 nu­clear deal be­tween the Is­lamic Repub­lic and world pow­ers and re­in­stated Amer­i­can sanc­tions that have badly dam­aged the Ira­nian econ­omy.

The pres­i­dent has ar­gued that the nu­clear deal failed to suf­fi­ciently curb Iran’s abil­ity to de­velop nu­clear weapons or halt its sup­port for mili­tias through­out the Mid­dle East that the U.S. ar­gues desta­bi­lize the re­gion.

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