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US prepares for possible Iranian reprisal after Soleimani drone strike

Official says Washington anticipating ‘major’ attack by Iran, possibly targeting an American commander; US air force seen readying forces for possible war

52 F-35 jets line up for a launch exercise at Utah's Hill Air Force Base in show of force and combat readiness amid US-Iran tensions, January 6, 2020. (US Air Force/R. Nial Bradshaw/Twitter screen capture)
52 F-35 jets line up for a launch exercise at Utah's Hill Air Force Base in show of force and combat readiness amid US-Iran tensions, January 6, 2020. (US Air Force/R. Nial Bradshaw/Twitter screen capture)

WASHINGTON — US officials braced for Iran to respond to the killing of its most powerful general, noting heightened military readiness in the country and preparing for a possible “tit-for-tat” attempt on the life of an American military commander. They warned ships across Mideast waterways crucial to global energy supplies about the “possibility of Iranian action” against US maritime interests in the region.

US President Donald Trump ordered the January 2 strike against Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, after the death of an American contractor in Iraq. Now, amid massive demonstrations of Iran’s public mourning period for Soleimani and a state TV report of a deadly stampede at his funeral, officials believe the next steps by America’s longtime foe will determine the ultimate course of the latest crisis.

While officials say American intelligence isn’t clear on whether Iran’s latest military moves are designed to bolster Tehran’s defenses or prepare for an offensive strike, the US is continuing to reinforce its own positions in the region, including repositioning some forces. One official said the US anticipated a “major” attack of some type within the next day or two.

Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper said Tuesday the US had deployed six B-52 strategic bombers to the British overseas territory of Diego Garcia, a tiny island in the central Indian Ocean some 3,900 kilometers (2,400 miles) from southern Iran — “within flying range for the strategic American bombers but beyond the reach of most Iranian missiles,” the paper reported.

In another sign of American muscle-flexing, the US Air Force conducted a photogenic near-simultaneous launch of 52 F-35 fighter jets from Utah’s Hill Air Force Base, according to officials.

The 52 advanced jets took off in the space of 10 minutes, according to the 388th Fighter Wing, which runs the base.

The wing’s deputy commander, Col. Michael Ebner, told Deseret News the launch was not directly related to the Iran crisis, but was nevertheless meant to send a message to enemies and US leaders alike. “The message is not just to potential adversaries, but it’s also to our nation’s leadership that they can count on the 388th Fighter Wing to support the combat power that they plan and require us to provide.” Trump had warned Iran it had 52 sites, including Iranian cultural sites, mapped out for targeting.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said no decision had been made about withdrawing troops from Iraq. Pro-Iranian factions in the Iraqi Parliament have pushed to oust American troops following Soleimani’s killing on Iraqi soil. Esper spoke to reporters after a letter from a US Marine general circulated that seemed to suggest a withdrawal had been ordered in response to a vote by the Iraqi Parliament over the weekend.

“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Esper said.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper delivers a statement on Iraq and Syria, at US President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property, in Palm Beach, Florida, December 29, 2019. (Evan Vucci/AP)

On Tuesday, the US Maritime Administration put out the warning for ships, citing the rising threats after Soleimani’s killing. Oil tankers were targeted last year in mine attacks the US blamed on Iran. Tehran denied being responsible though it did seize oil tankers around the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s crude oil travels.

Soleimani’s death, which has sparked major protests, further nuclear development and new threats of violence, has raised the prospect of a wide and unpredictable conflict in the Middle East and escalated tensions between Iran and the US.

The two nations have careened from one flare-up to another since Trump began his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran shortly after taking office. He abrogated the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed crushing economic sanctions, both steps aimed at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and deterring the sort of regional aggression spearheaded by Soleimani.

Paratroopers assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division walk as they prepare equipment and load aircraft bound for the US Central Command area of operations from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, January 4, 2020. (Spc. Hubert Delany III/US Army via AP, File)

Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions, said targeting Soleimani was not representative of a wholesale shift in American policy toward Iran, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments on Sunday that the US was targeting Iran’s “actual decision-makers” rather than its network of proxy allies. Trump has repeatedly contended that he is not seeking “regime change” in Iran, as has been pushed by some of his more hawkish advisers.

Still, Trump’s strike against Soleimani, a revered figure in Iran whose death sparked large displays of anger and grief, was a risky decision his Republican and Democratic predecessors opted not to take out of concern it would draw the US and Iran closer to conflict.

US officials are also aware that Iran could try to strike a high-level American leader in a “tit-for-tat” move, potentially a military commander.

Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone strike, in the city of Kerman, Iran, January 7, 2020 (Erfan Kouchari/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

One official said some Iranian ships have spread out, and while the intent isn’t immediately clear, they could move rapidly to attack.

The US military has increased protection of its forces, particularly in Iraq. Officials said a number of the recently deployed soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division had moved into Iraq from Kuwait in order to increase security for Americans there. The US military has stopped all training of Iraqi forces to focus on force protection, officials said.

As of Monday, officials said, there had not been a broadly distributed order or recommendation to increase security at military installations worldwide. Instead, decisions were being left up to the commanders.

An Iranian mourner holds a placard during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The US military’s concern about its vulnerability to Iranian attack in the Persian Gulf region has been at a heightened state since about May, when the administration reported it was getting intelligence indications that Iran was planning attacks on US interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. The Pentagon sent additional forces to the Gulf at that point, and in July it worked out an arrangement with the government of Saudi Arabia to send US forces to a large base deep in the Saudi desert, in less obvious range of Iranian missiles.

The main hub for American military air operations throughout the Middle East is located at al-Udeid air base in Qatar – within easy range of Iranian missiles. American forces also are stationed in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The Navy’s 5th Fleet, which operates throughout the region, is based at Bahrain.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill in the US, Democrats prepared largely symbolic resolutions under the War Powers Act to limit the president’s military actions regarding Iran. In a letter to House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the airstrike on Soleimani “provocative and disproportionate” and said it had “endangered our servicemembers, diplomats and others by risking a serious escalation of tensions with Iran.”

Anti-war activist protest in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 4, 2020. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

Congress, which has the sole power to declare war, has complained that Trump did not provide advance notice of his airstrike in Baghdad. Trump did meet the 48-hour deadline required by the War Powers Act to notify Congress after the deadly drone strike. The document was classified, and no public version was released.

Senators will receive a briefing Wednesday on the situation, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Pompeo, Esper, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are expected to speak. The House is also expected to be briefed this week.

White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, speaking Monday on “Fox & Friends,” dismissed complaints from Democrats about notification as a “partisan action.”

US President Donald Trump speaks during an ‘Evangelicals for Trump Coalition Launch’ at King Jesus International Ministry, in Miami, January 3, 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Pelosi said the notification “raises more questions than it answers. This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran,” she said.

In remarks to reporters Monday, Gen. Milley insisted that the intelligence on which Trump based his decision to kill Soleimani called for urgent action.

“I’ll stand by the intelligence I saw,” he said, adding that details had not been made public because they are classified. He said the intelligence showed Soleimani was plotting attacks and that the US would have been negligent not to act.

“It was imminent,” he said, “and it was very, very clear in scale and scope. Did it exactly say who, what, when and where? No, but he was planning, coordinating and synchronizing significant operations against US military forces in the region, and it was imminent.

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