The United States has warned Iran and its allies against any regional escalation in the wake of Israel’s war with Hamas, two top US officials said Sunday, hours after the Pentagon moved to step up military readiness in the region.
With tensions mounting, Washington also announced Sunday it had ordered non-emergency staff to leave its embassy in Iraq.
“We are concerned at the possibility of Iranian proxies escalating their attacks against our own personnel, our own people,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CBS News. “We expect there is a likelihood of escalation.”
“No one should take advantage of this moment to escalate to further attacks on Israel or, for that matter, attacks on us on our personnel.”
US troops have been attacked in Iraq and in Syria with drones and rockets in separate incidents this past week. A group of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq warned that US forces “must leave immediately” or their bases in Iraq and elsewhere in the region will continue to come under attack.
Blinken said the United States, which has sent two carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean, was “taking every measure to make sure that we can defend them. And if necessary, respond decisively.”
His words doubled down on an earlier message from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who warned of a “prospect of significant escalation of attacks on our troops” in the region.
Their comments came amid growing fears that Iranian proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, or other terror groups supported by Tehran, might take advantage of the tense situation over Gaza to enlarge the conflict and further stretch Israel’s military.
But Austin, speaking to ABC News, issued a stern warning: “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.”
“We maintain the right to defend ourselves and we won’t hesitate to take the appropriate action,” he added.
The comments from the two senior members of US President Joe Biden’s cabinet came hours after the Pentagon said it was upping readiness in the region in response to “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces.”
Austin ordered the activation of air defense systems and notified additional forces that they may be deployed soon.
But Austin also acknowledged that the ground invasion Israel says it plans to launch could well take longer than the time it took him to remove the Islamic State from power in Mosul, Iraq when he was the head of the US Army’s Central Command.
“Urban combat is extremely difficult. It goes at a slow pace,” he told ABC News.” “This may be a bit more difficult because of the underground network of tunnels that Hamas has constructed over time, and the fact that they have had a long time to prepare for a fight.
“So I think you’ll see a fight that’s characterized by a lot of IEDs, a lot of booby traps and just a really grinding activity going forward,” Austin said.
The steps continued the Biden administration’s pro-Israel stance since some 2,500 terrorists from Hamas and other factions in the Gaza Strip infiltrated into Israel on October 7, killing some 1,400 people, a majority of them civilians in their homes in southern Israeli communities and at a music festival, and taking more than 200 hostages of all ages into Gaza. The shock assault came under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.
The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — men and women, including the elderly, as well as children. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists, in what Biden has highlighted as “the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”
Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.
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.
The State Department announced it had given a directive on Friday for non-emergency staff and eligible family members to leave its embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil, “due to increased security threats against US personnel and interests.”
It also announced an updated version of its travel advisory, warning US citizens not to travel to Iraq.
Armed factions close to Iran have threatened to attack US interests in Iraq over Washington’s support for Israel.
Multiple Iraqi bases used by US-led coalition troops have been targeted in attacks in recent days.
And along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the Israeli army traded fire with Hezbollah amid fears of a new front opening. The US had authorized non-essential embassy personnel and their families to leave the embassy in Lebanon last week.
Israel’s military has said it would intensify strikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza ahead of a planned ground invasion.
The military has pounded Gaza with airstrikes strikes in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack, with more than 4,650 Palestinians reported killed, according to the health authority controlled by Hamas. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen, and the victims of hundreds of misfired Palestinian rockets Israel says have landed in the Strip during the fighting.
Israel also says it killed 1,500 Hamas terrorists inside Israel on and after October 7.