US troops and diplomatic staff in Iraq face a “heightened risk” of attack from Iran or ‘Iranian-backed’ groups as the one year anniversary of Qasem Soleimani’s death approaches, Gen. Kenneth ‘Frank’ McKenzie, commander of USCENTCOM, the command responsible for the Middle East, has said.
“I do believe we remain in a period of heightened risk,” McKenzie said, speaking to ABC News. “I would just emphasize this key point: We’re not looking to escalate ourselves. We’re not looking for war with Iran, I really want to emphasize that.”
McKenzie said he believed Iran was also not seeking to escalate things, and “doesn’t want a war with the United States right now. And I know for a fact that the United States doesn’t seek war with Iran.”
The commander’s comments come just days after separate remarks earlier in which he warned that the US would be “prepared to react” if Iran launched an attack on the anniversary.
“We are prepared to defend ourselves, our friends and partners in the region, and we’re prepared to react if necessary,” McKenzie said in the earlier remarks. “My assessment is we are in a very good position and we’ll be prepared for anything the Iranians or their proxies acting for them might choose to do,” he added.
On Monday, the US Navy confirmed that the USS Georgia nuclear attack submarine, equipped with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, had passed through the Strait of Hormuz and entered the Persian Gulf. Israeli media then reported that an Israeli Navy submarine had visibly crossed the Suez Canal in what was dubbed a ‘show of force’ aimed at Iran.
JUST IN: #USNavy's #USSGeorgia transits #StraitofHormuz with cruisers #USSPortRoyal and #USSPhilippineSea. Georgia’s presence in @US5thFleet demonstrates the fleet's ability to operate wherever international law allows. #forcetobereckonedwith— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) December 21, 2020
DETAILS ➡️ https://t.co/PObIHE2XC6 pic.twitter.com/ys8cBbnm7k
Heightened Regional Tensions Over Scientist's Killing
The naval maneuvers come amid heightened regional tensions following the 27 November assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior Iranian nuclear physicist and missile expert about 175 km outside Tehran. Iran blamed Israel for the brazen daylight killing and threatened to respond.
Iran reacted to the 3 January 2020 killing of Soleimani by lobbing over a dozen ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq, leaving over 100 US troops with traumatic brain injuries. In the months that followed, US forces in Iraq were subjected to dozens of artillery attack by unknown assailants, with the US claiming ‘Iranian proxy’ Shia militias who are also allied to the Baghdad government were involved.
Iran has repeatedly threatened further revenge attacks for Soleimani’s killing, with one official saying the only reason the Islamic Republic has not responded by assassinating a senior US military commander was because it could not “find anyone who is equally valuable.” Last month, an advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the January missile strike just the “initial slap” of revenge.