Iran or groups it supports may be planning further attacks on United States interests in the Middle East, and the US is prepared to take pre-emptive military action if it gets sufficient warning, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Thursday.
“There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks, that is nothing new … we’ve seen this for two or three months now,” Esper told reporters, without elaborating. “If that happens then we will act and by the way, if we get word of attacks or some type indication, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces to protect American lives.”
Pro-Iran protesters leave US embassy compound in Baghdad
‘Iran is not afraid’: Why Tehran dismisses US threats over Iraq
Iran rejects US accusation of being behind Baghdad protests
Supporters of alargely Iranian-trained paramilitary group and others who hurled rocks at the US embassy in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops.
US President Donald Trump, who faces a re-election campaign in 2020, accused Iran of orchestrating the violence. He threatened on Tuesday to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.
The unrest outside the US embassy in Baghdad followed US air raids on Sunday against bases of the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group. Washington said the air raids, which killed 25 people, were in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a US contractor in northern Iraq last week.
The protests marked a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.
“The game has changed and we are prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region,” Esper said.
During the same news briefing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said there had been a sustained campaign by Kataib Hezbollah against US personnel since at least October and the missile attack in northern Iraq was designed to kill.
For its part, Iran has denied allegations it is behind the anti-US protests in Iraq.
Speaking at a public event in Tehran on Wednesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “If Iran decides to confront a country, it will do so openly. But everyone must know that we are strongly committed to the country’s interests and we shall not hesitate to intervene and deal a blow to any party who attempts to pose a threat to the country.”