By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Roberta Rampton WASHINGTON, May 24 (Reuters) – The United States announced on Friday the deployment of 1,500 troops to the Middle East, describing it as an effort to bolster defenses against Iran as it accused the country’s Revolutionary Guards of direct responsibility for this month’s tanker attacks.
U.S. President Donald Trump publicly announced the 1,500 figure, which had been previously reported by Reuters, and described it as a defensive measure. The troops include personnel manning missile defense systems, aerial surveillance to spot threats and engineers to fortify defenses.
“We want to have protection in the Middle East. We’re going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective,” Trump said as he left the White House for a trip to Japan.
The deployment marks a reversal of sorts for Trump, who only on Thursday said he thought more troops were unnecessary. Trump has sought to detangle the U.S. military from open-ended conflicts in places like Syria and Afghanistan.
The deployment is relatively small, compared with the about 70,000 American troops now stationed across a region that stretches from Egypt to Afghanistan. In addition, some 600 of the 1,500 “new” troops are already in the Middle East manning Patriot missiles, and will see their deployments extended.
Eager to avoid escalation with Iran amid already heightened tensions, Pentagon officials stressed the defensive nature of the deployment in a news briefing and noted that none of the troops would be heading to hot spots like Iraq or Syria.
“These are defensive forces,” said Katie Wheelbarger, one of the Pentagon’s most senior policy officials.
The Trump administration this month ordered the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group, bombers and additional Patriot missiles to the Middle East, citing intelligence about possible Iranian preparations to attack U.S. forces or interests.
ATTACKS ON TANKERS
Rear Admiral Michael Gilday, the director of the Joint Staff, on Friday described U.S. intelligence portraying a new Iranian “campaign” that used old tactics, and stretched from Iraq to Yemen to the waters in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital maritime chokepoint for the global oil trade.
Gilday accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) of being directly responsible for attacks on tankers off the United Arab Emirates earlier this month — in what could be a foreshadowing of the conclusion of ongoing investigations into the incident.
“The attack against the shipping in Fujairah, we attribute it to the IRGC,” Gilday said, explaining that the Pentagon attributed limpet mines used in the attack directly to the IRGC.
He declined to describe “the means of delivery” of the mines, however.
Gilday also accused Iran-backed “proxy” forces of carrying out a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone last week.
The Pentagon did not provide any evidence to support its claims, but said it hoped to further declassify intelligence supporting them. Iran has dismissed the accusations entirely and accuses the United States of brinkmanship with its troop deployments.
Trump played down the potential for military conflict in the region, saying he believed Iran did not want a confrontation with the United States — even as Washington tightens sanctions with a goal of pushing Iran to make concessions beyond the terms of its 2015 nuclear deal.
Trump pulled out of the international deal between Iran and six major world powers last year.
“Right now, I don’t think Iran wants to fight. And I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us,” Trump said.
“But they cannot have nuclear weapons,” he continued. “They can’t have nuclear weapons. And they understand that.” (Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Phil Stewart; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Paul Simao and Susan Thomas)
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