The U.S. is shoring up its defenses in the Middle East after tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. military and an Iran-backed Shia militia group stoked new tensions in the region this week, the top U.S. general in the region announced Friday.
Following the Wednesday rocket attack on Camp Taji, Iraq, that killed U.S. and British service members and a retaliatory U.S. and British airstrike on five locations in Iraq on Thursday, the U.S. military will continue to operate two aircraft carrier strike groups in the region, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS Harry S. Truman, Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon Friday. This is the first period of extended dual U.S. carrier operations in the Middle East since 2012, he said.
McKenzie stressed the symbolic significance of keeping two U.S. carriers in the region, noting that the vessel “is a floating piece of American sovereignty.”
“We know the Iranians watch them very closely,” he said.
In addition, the U.S. is moving Patriot missile defense systems, which are designed to defend against cruise and ballistic missiles of the type used by Iran, into Iraq. They may be joined by more weapon systems for countering rockets, artillery and mortars, known as C-RAM, McKenzie said. C-RAM is designed to knock down lower-altitude weapons such as the 107mm Katyusha rockets fired at Camp Taji on Wednesday, but they “are not a panacea,” he cautioned.
Roughly 90,000 U.S. forces are operating in the area overseen by U.S. Central Command, including the Middle East and Afghanistan, up from the 80,000 that were there before the death of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike in January. The Wall Street Journal on Monday reported that some of these troops had begun to head home after several months without a significant attack; it is not yet clear if this reduction will continue.
McKenzie declined to directly blame Iran for the attack, but noted that Kataib Hezbollah, the Shia militia group that launched the rocket barrage on Wednesday, is “closely linked” to Tehran. Kataib Hezbollah has been involved in 12 rocket attacks against coalition forces in the last six months, including a December attack on Kirkuk that killed an American contractor and led to a series of escalations that brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.
The U.S. and British airstrikes launched on Thursday successfully hit and destroyed all five targets, all of which were Kataib Hezbollah weapons storage facilities, McKenzie said, noting that he expects minimal collateral damage.
“We believe that this is going to have an effect on deterring future strikes of this nature,” McKenzie said. “We’ve seen what happens in the past when you don’t respond.”