Trump approves additional 1,500 US troops to Mideast to counter Iran

President Donald Trump is sending an additional 1,500 US troops to the Middle East as part of a "mostly protective" effort to deter Iranian threats, he said. Many of the new forces will be engineers to support Patriot missile batteries and reconnaissance aircraft that are being newly deployed, a US official and a source familiar with the plan tells CNN.

"We want to have protection," Trump said, speaking to reporters Friday at the White House. "The Middle East, we're going to be sending a relatively small number of troops - mostly protective. Some very talented people are going to the Middle East right now and we'll see what happens."

Asked how many troops, he said: "It'll be about 1,500 people."

"I don't think Iran wants to fight," Trump added, "and I certainly don't think they want to fight with us."

Shortly after Trump's remarks, the Pentagon announced that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps is responsible for attacks on four tankers at a port in the United Arab Emirates.

Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that "the Iranians have said publicly they were going to do things. We learned through intelligence reporting they have acted upon those threats and they have actually attacked."

The Trump administration has also notified lawmakers that it is using a pre-existing rule that allows it to bypass Congress in order to expedite arms sales to allies in the region.

The weapons sales, intended to push back on Iran's "malign activities," according to the administration, are worth $8.1 billion, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

"These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability, and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran," Pompeo said in a statement Friday.

The deployment and arms sales signal an intensified push against Tehran that is likely to raise concerns on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have questioned the administration's threat assessment about Iran and have expressed concern that the US military build-up could lead to an accidental confrontation. Shanahan and other administration officials have said the administration's focus is on deterrence and the protection of US forces in the region.

But senior military commanders already are talking privately about further troop level increases.

The US has yet to publicly provide any evidence that shows increased Iranian threats.

The deployment announced Friday will include "approximately 1,500 US military personnel and consist of a Patriot battalion to defend against missile threats; additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft; an engineer element to provide force protection improvements throughout the region; and a fighter aircraft squadron to provide additional deterrence and depth to our aviation response options," Shanahan said.

The US military also wants to send military engineers to the region to improve airfield security at bases CENTCOM would like to use. Another strategy will be to try to base some forces at locations out of the range of any potential Iranian missile attack. One such location might be Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia according to some officials. It is not clear if an agreement with the Saudis has been reached.

The CENTCOM deployment request also includes both manned and unmanned aircraft for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to monitor the movement of Iranian forces, including their increased readiness.

Pentagon officials have said that military intelligence assessments in the last several days underscored increased Iranian military readiness along their coastline and the thousands of short and medium range ballistic and cruise missiles in their inventory that could strike US targets in the region.

Those assessments have been questioned by lawmakers, who said after closed-door briefings Tuesday from Shanahan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the threat level from Iran was not unusual. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the foreign relations committee, said Monday that he was hearing "Republicans twist the Iran intel to make it sound like Iran is taking unprovoked, offensive measures against the US and our allies."

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