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Pentagon to send another 1,000 troops to Middle East as it works to prove Iran was behind tanker attacks

This photo is a view of hull penetration/blast damage sustained from a limpet mine attack on the starboard side of motor vessel M/T Kokuka Courageous, while operating in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019.

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By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 17, 2019

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will send about 1,000 new troops into the Middle East “for defensive purposes,” the Defense Department announced Monday in its third such deployment of forces in recent weeks as tensions with Iran have increased amid threats and attacks on civilian ships.

Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan announced the new deployment of unspecified military forces into the region as the Pentagon released newly declassified imagery it claims clearly shows Iranian forces as responsible for simultaneous attacks last week on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

The new deployment, requested by U.S. Central Command chief Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, brings the troop surge into the Middle East to some 2,500 additional servicemembers since the White House abruptly announced May 5 that it was speeding the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a B-52 bomber task force into the region, citing unspecified threats from Iran and its proxy forces.

“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran,” Shanahan said in the Monday statement. “The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests.”

President Donald Trump, in an interview with TIME magazine published Tuesday, said he would send U.S. troops into a war with Iran over nuclear weapons, but he was not so certain he would approve combat operations to protect the international oil shipping routes Iran has threatened to close.

Trump, like his Pentagon and State Department leaders, has blamed Iran for the May 12 and June 13 attacks on tankers. However, the president told TIME that “so far, it’s been very minor,” contrary to the harsher tones emanating from the Defense and State departments.

Pentagon officials remained silent Tuesday about the types of troops that they are sending to the Middle East or precisely where the troops would be located. Two Pentagon officials said the troops would not be front-line combat forces, such as infantrymen or special operators, describing them as primarily “force protection.”

One of the officials said the troops would bolster intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in the region and would include background support forces, including aircraft maintainers. The officials were not authorized to speak on the matter and requested anonymity.

The previous deployments of troops announced by the Pentagon included Army Patriot missile operators, who provide anti-aircraft and anti-missile capabilities, as well as engineers and an Air Force fighter jet squadron. The military also extended a deployment of a separate Patriot missile battalion in the region.

Officials at the Pentagon and the State Department have said the increased force posture is necessary to protect Americans throughout the Middle East from threats that they have said include planned attacks by Iranian-controlled militias. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran this week for a series of recent incidents, including the tanker attacks and an unsuccessful rocket attack that exploded near American troops in Baghdad last month.

Similar attacks occurred in Iraq on Monday and Saturday, according to U.S. military and The Associated Press reporting from the region. Operations Inherent Resolve said a rocket attack — using the same Katyusha rockets as the May attack — was launched Monday against Camp Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad. The AP reported the Saturday attack caused a small fire on an air base north of Baghdad that houses U.S. trainers.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials have worked to declassify material that they claim rules out any other actor besides Iran in the tanker attacks and other security incidents throughout the region in an effort to convince the American public and allies of Tehran’s misdeeds.

The Defense Department released 11 images Monday that it said show an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gashti Class Patrol Boat approaching the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, apparently to retrieve one of the unexploded magnetic limpet mines used in the June 13 attacks.

Pentagon officials said the IRGC forces attempted to retrieve the mine to cover up their involvement in the bombing, but they were captured in the photographs and previously released video from a Navy MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter.

Two Navy explosive ordnance disposal officials said Monday that damage to the vessel displayed in some of the photographs indicated the use of limpet mines, which are magnetic explosives that are typically placed by hand onto the hulls of ships. Limpet mines have been in use by numerous navies and other actors since at least World War II.

The EOD officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said the placement of the mines above the vessel’s waterline indicated the attackers did not intend to sink the Kokuka Courageous. The officials said they were not involved in the ongoing investigation into the incident and did not have direct knowledge of the probe.

One of the photos released Monday shows a piece of the unexploded limpet mine that was left behind on the side of the Kokuka Courageous, according to the Pentagon. One of the EOD officials described the remnants as likely a magnet left behind, and explained that limpet mines typically would be placed using multiple magnets.

The official said limpet mines can vary greatly in size and can include military-class weapons or improvised explosives. The official said it would be difficult to determine precisely where a limpet mine originated from based solely on examining the device.

Pentagon officials also released an image of what they claimed are members of the IRGC on their boat after removing the mine. It shows about nine people aboard a small vessel that includes a heavy weapon mounted toward the front of the boat. Most of the individuals on the boat appear to be wearing orange life vests.

The Japanese owner of the tanker said Friday that the ship’s crew saw flying objects that hit the ship, according to a Washington Post report. The EOD officials did not rule out a projectile as being responsible for the damage shown in the new photographs. However, they said a torpedo would not have caused such damage.

The new photos come one day after CENTCOM said Iran-backed Houthi rebels had shot down an American MQ-9 drone on June 6. CENTCOM also said Iranian forces had unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down another Reaper on June 13 as the drone approached the other ship attacked that day in the Gulf of Oman, the M/T Front Altair, which was on fire.

Since last year, when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that Iran reached with world powers, the administration has been imposing sanctions that have strained Iran’s economy and have cut into its oil exports.

In response, Iran’s leaders have threatened repeatedly to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s oil is transported. Tehran also has threatened to begin enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels if European nations don’t offer new terms for the nuclear agreement.

Iran has accused the U.S. of raising tensions in the region, calling American forces a destabilizing presence and designating them a terrorist group. Washington, however, has said its moves are only aimed at protecting its interests and allies in the region.

Trump and officials at the State Department and the Pentagon have blamed Iran for the increased tensions and they have said their goal is simply to force Iran to the bargaining table in an attempt to strike a new nuclear accord.

Stars and Stripes reporter Caitlin M. Kenney contributed to this report.
dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @
CDicksteinDC

Imagery taken from a U.S. Navy MH-60R helicopter of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy removing an unexploded limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous.
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