U.S. boosts forces in Middle East as Iran situation reignites

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“We know the Iranians watch them very closely,” he said.

In addition, the U.S. is moving Patriot missile defense systems, which are designed to defend against cruise and ballistic missiles of the type used by Iran, into Iraq. They may be joined by more weapon systems for countering rockets, artillery and mortars, known as C-RAM, McKenzie said. C-RAM is designed to knock down lower-altitude weapons such as the 107mm Katyusha rockets fired at Camp Taji on Wednesday, but they “are not a panacea,” he cautioned.

Roughly 90,000 U.S. forces are operating in the area overseen by U.S. Central Command, including the Middle East and Afghanistan, up from the 80,000 that were there before the death of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike in January. The Wall Street Journal on Monday reported that some of these troops had begun to head home after several months without a significant attack; it is not yet clear if this reduction will continue.

McKenzie declined to directly blame Iran for the attack, but noted that Kataib Hezbollah, the Shia militia group that launched the rocket barrage on Wednesday, is “closely linked” to Tehran. Kataib Hezbollah has been involved in 12 rocket attacks against coalition forces in the last six months, including a December attack on Kirkuk that killed an American contractor and led to a series of escalations that brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.

The U.S. and British airstrikes launched on Thursday successfully hit and destroyed all five targets, all of which were Kataib Hezbollah weapons storage facilities, McKenzie said, noting that he expects minimal collateral damage.

“We believe that this is going to have an effect on deterring future strikes of this nature,” McKenzie said. “We’ve seen what happens in the past when you don’t respond.”

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