Esper says Iran may be planning more attacks on US interests

US defense secretary’s claim follows an attempt by an Tehran-sponsored Iraqi militia to break into the US embassy in Baghdad

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks onstage during a briefing at Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida, on December 29, 2019. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks onstage during a briefing at Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida, on December 29, 2019. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

Iran or its proxy forces may be planning further strikes on American interests in the Middle East, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday.

Without providing details, Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that the US has “indications” that more Iranian provocations may be in the offing. If that happens, he said, the US will take action — preemptively, if it has sufficient warning.

He spoke two days after dispatching several hundred Army paratroopers to Kuwait as potential reinforcements in the region. Those troops were sent after an Iran-sponsored Iraqi militia attempted to break into the US embassy in Baghdad.

Speaking alongside Esper, US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that if any group makes another attempt to overrun the embassy it will run into a “buzzsaw.”

Thousands gathered outside the embassy in anger at deadly weekend US airstrikes on the pro-Iran Hashed faction Kataeb Hezbollah. Those strikes were in response to a rocket attack on an Iraqi army base that killed a US contractor.

On Wednesday morning, US Marines guarding the embassy fired tear gas as more crowds arrived and after the protesters lit a fire on the roof of the reception area. Smoke rose from the building. There have been no reports of any injuries since the protests began.

Dozens of Iran-allied militiamen and their supporters had camped out at the gates of the embassy overnight on Tuesday, a day after they broke into the compound, trashing a reception area and smashing windows before pulling back. It was one of the worst attacks on a US diplomatic mission in years.

The violence came as Iran and its allies have faced unprecedented mass protests in recent months and after heavy US sanctions on Iran that have cratered its economy and raised tensions across the region. In Iraq, the protesters have been angered at their own government’s corruption and economic mismanagement, as well as its close ties to Tehran.

Iran has denied any involvement in the attack on the embassy. Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted by state media on Tuesday as warning the US against any “miscalculation” in the worsening standoff, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday said that US President Donald Trump was powerless to do anything to Iran.

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