As tensions rise, Pentagon boosts Mideast air defense in response to Iran ‘escalations’

US Secretary of Defense Austin orders THAAD and Patriot missile shields activated throughout region, warns Washington will take action against any attempt to ‘widen the conflict’

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, in Washington, October 19, 2023. (Cliff Owen/AP)
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, in Washington, October 19, 2023. (Cliff Owen/AP)

With tensions rising across the region and signs of widening conflict, the Pentagon moved Saturday to step up US military readiness in the Middle East in response to what it said were “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces” across the region, warning that Washington would “take appropriate action” against any attempt to open a new war front.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the activation of air defense systems and notified additional forces that they may be deployed soon.

“These steps will bolster regional deterrence efforts, increase force protection for US forces in the region, and assist in the defense of Israel,” he said.

Austin did not say how many US troops would be added to those already in the region.

The Pentagon’s moves came after what Austin described in a statement as “detailed discussions” with US President Joe Biden.

“I will continue to assess our force posture requirements in the region and consider deploying additional capabilities as necessary,” he said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with IDF troops on the Gaza border on October 20, 2023. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

Hours after the decision, Austin vowed that the US would take “appropriate action” in response to any escalation in the Middle East of the ongoing conflict.

“We’re concerned about potential escalation. In fact, what we’re seeing is a prospect of significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region,” he told ABC News.

“If any group or any country is looking to widen this conflict and take advantage of this very unfortunate situation that we see, our advice is: don’t,” he said.

“We maintain the right to defend ourselves and we won’t hesitate to take the appropriate action,” Austin added.

The announcement also came after Austin again spoke with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

“The secretary thanked Minister Gallant for Israel’s role in facilitating the October 21 humanitarian convoy into Gaza and reiterated the importance of protecting civilians,” said a statement from the Pentagon. “The two leaders also discussed the continued provision of security assistance and the US commitment to deter any state or non-state actor seeking to escalate this war.”

The steps continued the Biden administration’s response since Hamas unleashed an onslaught of over 2,500 terrorists who invaded Israel from Gaza on October 7, killing at least 1,400 people, the vast majority of them civilians. The terrorists, who broke through the border under cover of a barrage of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli town and cities, also abducted at least 212 people of all ages, dragging them back to Gaza as hostages.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, and says around 1,500 of the group’s fighters were killed in clashes on Israeli territory. Hamas has continued to rain rockets on southern and central Israel from Gaza.

Austin said he had activated deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery and additional Patriot battalions “throughout the region.”

“Finally, I have placed an additional number of forces on prepare to deploy orders as part of prudent contingency planning, to increase their readiness and ability to quickly respond as required,” Austin said.

A US THAAD interceptor defense system during a test launch (YouTube screen grab. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Tensions are also rising along the northern border with Lebanon, where Israel and the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah have been engaging in repeated clashes around the boundary, some of them deadly, sparking fears of a new front opening.

In south Lebanon on Saturday, Hezbollah said four of its fighters were killed. Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad said one of its fighters was also killed. Israel said it hit cells preparing to fire anti-tank rockets at border communities. An Israeli soldier was killed and two others wounded by a Hezbollah-fired rocket. The IDF said Sunday that it again hit terrorists preparing to attack Israel from Lebanon.

Armed factions linked to Iran have threatened to attack US interests in Iraq over Washington’s support for Israel.

US troops stationed at two bases in Iraq were targeted with rocket attacks Friday that caused no casualties.

Since Wednesday, three Iraqi bases used by US-led coalition troops have been targeted in five separate attacks — Ain al-Assad, the Al-Harir base in northern Iraq and a military camp near Baghdad airport.

Israel’s military said Saturday that it would intensify strikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza ahead of a planned ground invasion. Israel said it was targeting Hamas assets and areas where the terror group is hiding and intends to topple and eradicate the terror group.

This picture taken from Israel’s southern city of Sderot shows smoke billowing over the northern Gaza Strip during Israeli airstrikes on October 22, 2023 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The bombing campaign has killed more than 4,300 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and reduced swaths of the densely populated territory to ruins. The Hamas-stated toll cannot be independently verified and is believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen. Israel has urged residents of the northern Gaza Strip to evacuate southward before the expected ground offensive begins.

A first trickle of aid entered the southern Palestinian enclave from Egypt on Saturday, but the 20 trucks permitted to cross have been described as a “drop in the ocean” given the needs of 2.4 million residents.

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