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Allies hesitated to join a U.S.-led task force protecting ships from Iran. Now a British officer is in charge.

Sailors stand on deck above a hole the U.S. Navy said was made by a limpet mine on a damaged oil tanker anchored off Fujairah, United Arab Emirates in June 2019. (Fay Abuelgasim/AP)

MANAMA, Bahrain — A British naval commander Thursday took over an international task force established in response to Iranian aggression, providing a coalition that had been U.S.-led with a new face as it attempts to recruit other countries that have hesitated to join amid hostilities between Washington and Tehran.

Commodore James Parkin took over for U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Alvin Holsey in a ceremony here at the U.S. Navy base and said his mission is “entirely divorced” from the Trump administration’s campaign to force Iran to renegotiate a new nuclear deal. The comments match how some U.S. officials describe the task force, but Parkin said his role as a British officer placed in command is a new “demonstration of that.”

“The U.K. position on the maximum-pressure campaign is a matter of record,” Parkin said. “We, as a nation, do not support it.”

The comments came about six months after the United States launched Operation Sentinel to protect shipping in the region, and about two months after a coalition known formally as the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) was established in November. Australia, Albania, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have joined, but U.S. allies including France, Germany and Japan have rebuffed requests for help due to concerns about conflict between the United States and Iran.

Holsey, standing alongside Parkin, talking to reporters, endorsed Parkin taking charge.

“It sends a clear signal that we’re looking for leaders,” Holsey said. “We’re looking for folks to come in and take it to the next level, and I expect him to do that.”

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper also highlighted the transition in a news conference.

“We welcome Commodore Parkin to this vital endeavor, which represents an international solution to an international problem,” he said.

Attacks that prompted the formation of the coalition include the mining of ships at sea last year and the seizure of a commercial vessel by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The United States and Saudi Arabia also blamed Iran for an attack in the fall on Saudi-owned Aramco oil facilities.

In a ceremony marking Parkin’s arrival and Holsey’s departure, the officers joined Vice Adm. James Malloy, the Navy’s top officer in the Middle East, in praising how they have stitched together a network of ships, aircraft and people to collaborate with shipping companies and provide stability.

“Each nation has brought a depth of knowledge to IMSC,” Holsey said. “Years of knowledge gathered from real-world experiences that is shaping the way we stand the watch, and it directly enhances our mission to protect the vital commerce that drives our nations’ economies and livelihoods.”

Malloy recalled before an audience assembled in an auditorium that the task force was established after “attacks and reckless military adventurism rocked this region.”

“Through both word and action, state actors openly threatened the freedom of navigation in the region with harassment, employment of mines, aggressive and illegal seizures, and numerous gross violations of international law — to include perpetuating attacks in disregard to the territorial waters of nonbelligerent regional nations,” Malloy said, without referring to Iran by name.

Holsey told reporters other nations that have sent ships to the region to boost security help, but the coalition based in Bahrain does not share immediate information it has about where commercial vessels are.

In a brief media tour after the ceremony, military officials escorted reporters through large tents that were pitched to house computer equipment in a makeshift watch floor for the operation. The unit has included about 45 men and women at the Navy base in Bahrain and is expected to grow to about 90 in coming weeks, the officials said. About half of them are American.

Royal Navy Cmdr. Ben Keith, the departing head of operations for the task force, said it typically has a minimum of two to three large warships assigned to it, including destroyers, frigates or cruisers. They provide surveillance through powerful sensors and radar, as well as helicopters in most cases.

“We will take as much as we can,” Keith said of the ships involved. “We hope to maintain three or four assets on task.”

The warships are joined by small patrol craft, corvettes and other vessels that stay closer to shores in sentry roles. The Gulf nations in the coalition provide some of them, and the United States provides others.

The unit plans to move the watch floor from the tents to a newly renovated section of a building on the Navy base in the summer, Keith said.