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U.S. military to maintain expanded Mideast presence, for now at least, following Iran strikes

Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, speaks to troops on the USS Bataan on Jan. 23.
Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, speaks to troops on the USS Bataan on Jan. 23. (Missy Ryan/The Washington Post)

ABOARD THE USS BATAAN IN THE RED SEA — The United States hopes to avert a conflict with Iran but will maintain an expanded military footprint in the Middle East amid heightened tensions, the head of U.S. Central Command said Thursday during a visit to the region.

Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr. said that new air, naval and troop deployments were intended to restore deterrence and send a signal to Tehran following a period in which tit-for-tat Iranian and U.S. attacks pushed the region to the brink of war.

“The message is, we don’t seek war with you. You should not seek war with us. And we would like to de-escalate to a lower level of tensions, if that’s possible,” McKenzie told reporters after visiting the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship operating in the northern Red Sea.

The general’s public remarks were his first since an American airstrike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3. The U.S. government viewed Soleimani, who was the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, as the mastermind of years of violence against American personnel.

After that attack, Tehran launched ballistic missiles at two sites populated by American soldiers in Iraq, the first time Iran has conducted an overt military assault on a base housing U.S. troops.

On the day U.S. forces killed Soleimani, they targeted a senior Iranian official in Yemen

Speaking earlier in the day after touching down on board the Bataan, McKenzie told troops they may be asked to remain in the region for an extended period. The Bataan and its sister ships, carrying troops of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, were diverted this month from a scheduled mission in the U.S. European Command zone and made a hasty passage to the Middle East.

“We’re in a very delicate time in the Central Command theater as a result of the events of the last couple of weeks,” McKenzie said. “What we want to do is we want to convince the Iranians that now is not a good time to do something goofy.”

The Pentagon has increased its overall Middle East footprint by more than 20,000 troops since last spring amid a number of events blamed on Iran or its proxies, including the use of mines to strike commercial ships, an attack on Saudi oil facilities, the downing of an American surveillance drone and several rocket attacks on bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops, including one that killed a U.S. contractor on Dec. 27. McKenzie did not say how long the U.S. military, which is looking to reorient its force toward challenges from China and Russia, would maintain its enhanced presence in the Middle East.

But the targeting of Soleimani, a peerless figure in Iran’s security establishment who was synonymous with the country’s support for armed proxy groups across the region, generated shock waves among allies and adversaries alike who have voiced fears about a destabilizing new conflict.

Iranian leaders have characterized the strike as an act of war, and the new Quds Force leader has vowed a “manly” response.

The retaliatory actions come as the Trump administration continues its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, applying new sanctions and promising additional measures if Iran should take steps to produce a nuclear weapon.

On Thursday, the Treasury Department issued sanctions against four international petrochemical and oil companies whose exports have provided revenue that the United States says Iran uses to fund its military activities and militias in the region.

The U.S. action targeted companies based in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dubai. Treasury officials said the firms paid hundreds of millions of dollars to the National Iranian Oil Co. to purchase its products.

In 2018, President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, prompting Tehran to take steps that European countries now say represent a violation of the 2015 agreement.

The heightened tensions occur against a backdrop of popular protests across Iran linked to economic conditions and, more recently, the government’s apparent accidental shoot-down of a passenger jet hours after its strikes against Americans in Iraq.

McKenzie said Iran’s Jan. 8 missile strike was an important departure for Tehran following what U.S. officials describe as a year-long covert campaign to strike the United States via proxies, primarily in Iraq.

“That’s something that is going to be very significant,” he said. “Having said that, they have shown signs of wanting to ­de-escalate, of not wanting to continue the conflict, and we certainly welcome that, because the last thing we want to do is have a war with Iran.”

The attack did not result in any American deaths, but a number of service members who suffered symptoms believed to be associated with traumatic brain injury are being treated and observed, defense officials have said.

The Pentagon says Iranian-linked militia attacks killed at least 500 troops following the 2003 Iraq invasion. But those militias fought on the same side as the United States and its allies — albeit at a distance — against the Islamic State in Iraq beginning in 2014.

The Soleimani strike has also strained U.S. relations with Iraq, which is pulled between its two chief allies at a moment when the government is facing its own wave of popular protests.

McKenzie said the United States would seek to be “coolheaded” amid the current crisis, hoping Iran would do the same, but would respond forcefully if needed.

“The ball is certainly in their court to a certain degree, and they know that we have the capability to defend ourselves and to inflict significant pain on them now should they choose to go that route.”

Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.

U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question or read previous Q&As with Post reporters.