WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon is considering sending several thousand additional troops to the Middle East to deter Iranian aggression, amid reports of escalating violence in Iran and meddling by Tehran in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
John Rood, defense undersecretary for policy, told senators Thursday that Defense Secretary Mark Esper "intends to make changes" to the number of troops deployed in the region. Other officials said options under consideration could send between 5,000 and 7,000 troops to the Middle East, but all stressed there have been no final decisions yet. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The troop deliberations follow several decisions since spring to beef up the U.S. presence in the Middle East because of a series of maritime attacks and bombings in Saudi Arabia that the United States and others have blamed on Iran.
President Donald Trump has approved those increases, though he routinely insists that he is pulling U.S. troops out of the Middle East and withdrawing from what he calls "endless wars" against extremists. In October, Trump told his supporters that despite the sacrificing of U.S. lives in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, the region is less safe and stable today. "The single greatest mistake our country made in its history," he said, "was going into the quicksand of the Middle East."
Asked about a possible troop increase, Trump told reporters Thursday: "We'll announce whether we will or not. Certainly there might be a threat. And if there is a threat, it will be met very strongly. But we will be announcing what we may be doing — may or may not be doing."
Later Thursday, national security adviser Robert O'Brien said Trump was open to sending more troops to the Middle East. "If the troops are needed to deter Iran, we have the capacity to move them into the region — although I don't think that's happening right now," O'Brien told Fox News.
Military leaders have said that the United States needs to increase its presence in the region to deter Iran from conducting more and broader attacks. Rood provided no details on why the additional troops are needed, but said the United States is concerned about recent intelligence indications suggesting an increased threat from Iran.
Rood was asked several times about reports that 14,000 more troops could be sent to the region. He repeatedly said Esper has not made a decision yet, but did not confirm or deny the number, so his answers appeared only to confuse senators. Shortly after the hearing, Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah issued a statement flatly denying the 14,000 number, saying Esper told the Senate committee chairman Thursday morning that "we are not considering sending 14,000 additional troops" to the region.
The troop discussions came as the Trump administration on Thursday accused Iranian security forces of killing more than 1,000 people in crackdowns against recent protests that have swept the country.
The estimated death toll is significantly higher than previous estimates from human rights groups, and the administration did not present documentary evidence to back up the claim. But Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, told reporters the tally was based on a variety of reports coming out of Iran as well as intelligence analyses.