US deploying 3,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia to boost air defenses

Buildup includes Patriot batteries, THAAD ballistic missile interception system and two fighter squadrons following attack on oil plant blamed on Iran

Illustrative: The US Army test fires a Patriot missile, March 27, 2019. (US Army/Jason Cutshaw)
Illustrative: The US Army test fires a Patriot missile, March 27, 2019. (US Army/Jason Cutshaw)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Friday it has approved the deployment of 3,000 additional troops and military hardware to Saudi Arabia, boosting the country’s defenses after attacks on its oil installations blamed on Iran.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper authorized the deployment of two more Patriot missile batteries, one THAAD ballistic missile interception system, two fighter squadrons and one air expeditionary wing, the Pentagon said in a statement.

“Secretary Esper informed Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman this morning of the additional troop deployment to assure and enhance the defense of Saudi Arabia,” the Pentagon said.

“Taken together with other deployments this constitutes an additional 3,000 forces that have been extended or authorized within the last month,” it said.

Esper later told reporters that the deployments were in response “to continued threats in the region” and came after a conversation with bin Salman about “efforts to protect from further Iranian aggression.”

The Saudi prince had requested additional support, Esper said.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Since May, the US has increased the number of its forces by about 14,000 in the Central Command area covering the Middle East, the defense department said.

In September, the US announced deployment of 200 troops as well as Patriot missiles to the kingdom in the wake of the attacks on Saudi oil installations blamed on Iran.

The attacks claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels damaged a third of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and sent global energy prices soaring. Washington, Riyadh, Berlin, London and Paris blamed Iran for the attacks, which Tehran has denied.

Satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. shows thick black smoke rising from Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia, September 14, 2019. (Planet Labs Inc via AP)

Friday’s announcement came after the owner of an Iranian oil tanker said suspected missile strikes hit the vessel off the Saudi west coast port of Jeddah, raising fresh concerns about the Middle East oil supply.

The National Iranian Tanker Company said in a statement that the hull of the Sabiti was hit by two separate explosions about 100 kilometers (60 miles) off the Saudi coast.

It said the blasts were “probably caused by missile strikes.”

“All the ship’s crew are safe and the ship is stable too,” the company said, adding that those on board were trying to repair the damage.

Lt. Pete Pagano, a spokesman for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet overseeing the Mideast, said authorities there were “aware of reports of this incident,” but declined to comment further.

There was no immediate acknowledgement from Saudi Arabia.

The reported explosion comes after the US has blamed Iran in recent months for a series of mysterious attacks oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz.

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