U.S. to send more troops to Middle East amid simmering tensions with Iran

A proposal involving a surge in troops as high as 10,000 had been circulating in media reports. But the plan revealed Friday is far more modest.
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U.S. soldiers arrive at the site of a suicide car bombing that targeted an Afghan police district headquarters building as a gun battle continues between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Kabul on March 1, 2017.Wakil Kohsar / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Courtney Kube

The United States is sending 1,500 more troops to the Middle East, President Donald Trump said Friday, amid simmering tensions with Iran.

"We want to have protection," Trump said. "We're going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective."

The new deployment will consist of surveillance aircraft, a fighter jet squadron and engineers to fortify buildings and other facilities. The military is also extending the deployment of a 600-person Patriot missile battalion in the region, defense officials said.

All told, the military is sending fewer than 1,000 more troops to the region, officials said.

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A proposal involving a surge in troops as high as 10,000 had been circulating in media reports over the past couple of days. But the plan outlined by defense officials Friday is far more modest.

"The additional deployment to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility is a prudent defensive measure and intended to reduce the possibility of future hostilities," acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said.

Shanahan added that sending the military assets to the region will "improve our force protection and safeguard U.S. forces given the ongoing threat posed by Iranian forces, including the (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and its proxies."

In a Friday briefing, acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Katie Wheelbarger stressed that the U.S. is sending the additional forces in an effort to avert hostilities with Iran.

"We do not see these forces as provocative," Wheelbarger said. "We think they are intended to avoid conflict and defend our forces.”

The effort to beef up American forces in the region comes amid a period of heightened tensions with Iran.

The Trump administration announced earlier this month that it was sending a carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East to send a "clear and unmistakable message" to Iran. A day later, four oil tankers were attacked in the Persian Gulf.

"We believe with a high degree of confidence that this stems back to the leadership of Iran at the highest levels," Director of the Joint Staff Rear Adm. Michael Gilday said.

Gilday added that the U.S. moved to increase its military presence in the region in response to "multiple, credible reports that Iranian proxy groups intend to attack U.S. personnel in the Middle East."

Some U.S. allies and members of Congress have, however, expressed skepticism over the Trump administration's claims that Iran is responsible for the escalating tensions.

Rich Schapiro contributed.