US ups protection across Middle East

Photo file of Mark Esper

WASHINGTON: The US has increased its force “protection postures” in the Middle East in view of Iran’s aggressive stance, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, amid tensions over top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani’s killing last week.

The commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards was killed in a US drone strike, which was authorised by President Donald Trump.

Esper said he has spoken to commanders on the ground to ensure they have the resources needed to protect their people and prepare for any contingencies. He said that “as a result we have increased our force protection postures across the region and then we will continue to reposition and bolster our forces as necessary to protect our people, our interest and our facilities”.

During a Pentagon news conference, Esper asserted that the US has received widespread support for its actions from allies and partners in the region.

“We will continue to work with them to protect American gains against the ISIS,” he said.

The US remains committed to its strategic priorities in the Middle East such as deterring Iranian bad behaviour and sustaining the enduring defeat of the ISIS, the defense secretary said.

“The architects of terror should know that we will not tolerate attacks against America’s people and interest and will exercise our right to self-defense should that become necessary once again,” Esper said.

Responding to a question, he said the US is not seeking war with Iran.

“I think what happens next depends on them. We should expect that they will retaliate in some way, shape or form either through their proxies as they have been doing now for–but for how many years or by–and war with by their own hand and so we take this one step at a time,” Esper said.

The US is prepared for any contingency and then it will respond appropriately to whatever they do, he asserted.

When asked about Trump’s remarks on targeting cultural sites in Iran, Esper said: “I am fully confident that the president is not going to give us in the legal order and as I said the United States military had always has obey the laws of armed conflict.”

On Iran, he said,”It has been around through its proxies and it has consistently escalated this in terms of the size, scale, scope of their attacks so we reach the point where we had to act in self-defense.”

“We had to take appropriate action so at this point as I have said a few times now the ball is in their court. What they do next will determine what happens in the subsequent moves,” said the defense secretary.

Responding to questions, Esper said the US is not leaving Iraq for now.

“Our policy has not changed. We are not leaving her rock and a draft unsigned letter does not constitute a policy change and there is no signed letter to the best of my knowledge,’ he said.

“I have asked the question so there may be people trying to create confusion but we should focus on this much, what I said a few times now. Our policy has not changed. We are in a rock and we are there to support Iraqi Forces and Iraqi government to become a strong independent and prosperous country,” Esper said.

“It is fair to say that many Iraqis recognise the strategic importance of US’s partnership with them whether it is training and advising their military to become more effective on the battlefield or it is working together with him to defeat ISIS coalition”, he said.

“I think the vote the other day shows the support of most Iraqis for our presence in the country,” Esper said.

On if the US is legally obliged to withdraw from Iraq if told by the Iraqi government to go, he was said not going to speculate.

“We are not there yet. There has been, none of that has happened to the best of my knowledge and as those events unfold we will address them and we will have all of the right legal experts to advise us on that,” Esper said.