The United States is "not looking to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one," US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday, speaking to CNN.
Justifying the recent US decision to assassinate Revolutionary Guard Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani, Esper said Washington had "persuasive" evidence of Soleimani's alleged malign plans to harm Americans which was "more than razor thin."
"The fact of the matter is Soleimani was caught red handed on the ground in Baghdad. One terrorist leader of a terrorist organization meeting with another terrorist leader to synchronize and plan additional attacks on American diplomats, forces or facilities. I think we took the right action to remove these players from the battlefield," Esper said.
The second so-called "terrorist leader" the Pentagon chief was referring to was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of the Baghdad-allied Kata'ib Hezbollah Shia militia movement, who was killed along with Soleimani Friday morning after the convoy they were traveling in was targeted by a US Reaper drone.
"We are not looking to start a war with Iran but we are prepared to finish one,” US Defense Secretary Mark Esper tells @camanpour. “...What we would like to see is the situation de-escalated and for Tehran to sit down with us and begin a discussion about a better way ahead.” pic.twitter.com/c3AsoArsN2— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) 7 января 2020 г.
Esper noted that the US would like to see the situation with Iran "de-escalated," and that US officials wants "Tehran to sit down with us and begin a discussion about a better way again."
He noted that the US would not withdraw troops from Iraq, and needed to retain its military presence in the country to combat terrorists.
Earlier Tuesday, a NATO official told reporters that the alliance would be "temporarily repositioning" some of its troops out of Iraq as a precaution amid the escalating tensions in the country over Soleimani's killing. The move followed reports that German forces were preparing to withdraw some of the troops engaged in training operations, and the suspension of NATO forces' training activities. Iraq's parliament voted to expel US troops out of the country on Sunday. Trump threatened the country with sanctions and said he would not withdraw until Baghdad compensated Washington for US military facilities in the country.
Iranian officials threatened to "avenge" Soleimani's death, leading to concerns that the thousands of US civilian administrators and the estimated 5,000 US troops stationed in Iraq could be targeted.
Soleimani was killed in the early hours of Friday morning as the motorcade he was in was destroyed in a US strike at Baghdad International Airport. President Trump and the US State Department accused the Quds Force commander of harbouring "imminent" plans to target Americans and US interests. Before his death, Soleimani coordinated Iran's extraterritorial military and intelligence operations for over two decades, and was involved in multiple anti-terrorist campaigns across Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.