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By Petr Svab

Iran, or the forces it backs, may be planning additional attacks on American presence in the Middle East, said U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Jan. 2 in the wake of a string of attacks that left one American dead and the U.S. Embassy stormed by Iran-backed terror groups. Washington may act preemptively to prevent further attacks, Esper said.

“There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks, that is nothing new … we’ve seen this for two or three months now,” Esper told reporters.

“If that happens, then we will act, and by the way, if we get word of attacks or some type indication, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, to protect American lives.”

In recent months, Iranian-backed Shiite terror groups have repeatedly attacked bases that host U.S. troops in Iraq.

On Dec. 27, one such attack caused the death of one U.S. civilian as well as injuries to four U.S. troops and two Iraqi Security Forces members.

In response, the Pentagon deployed F-15 fighter jets to strike three sites in Iraq and two in Syria that Esper described on Dec. 29 as command points and weapons caches of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-sponsored terrorist group.

The Shiite terror groups retaliated by spurring violent rallies, during which mobs pelted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with rocks on Dec. 31, causing “damage to exterior entry facilities and buildings at the embassy compound,” Esper said in a Jan. 2 statement.

Dozens of attackers linked to Kataib Hezbollah smashed a main door to the embassy compound and set fire to a reception area, but didn’t breach the inner compound.

The attackers withdrew on Jan. 1 at the behest of the Iraqi government and after U.S. President Donald Trump had U.S. Marines and Apache attack helicopters reinforce the embassy. Trump authorized the deployment of an additional 750 troops of the 82nd Airborne Division to neighboring Kuwait, a move described by Esper as a “precautionary action” in a Dec. 31 statement.

Preemptive Action

Esper emphasized that the administration won’t tolerate Iranian actions that endanger not only U.S. troops, but also civilian personnel, such as diplomats, or U.S. citizens.

“Attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing,” he said.

In a Jan. 2 Fox News interview, Esper declined to provide specifics, but raised the possibility the United States may act preemptively.

“I’m not going to telegraph what we’re going to do, but people know we have vast capability to do any number of things,” he said. “We’ll act in response to actions by Iran or its proxies and we’ll act to preempt any attacks on our forces or our personnel by Iran or its proxies.”

Esper noted that Iraqi forces were supposed to guard the area around the U.S. Embassy.

Trump on Jan. 1 said he spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi that day and that the Iraqi government “stepped up very nicely” after the embassy attack.

Abdul-Mahdi is backed by Iran and has already announced plans to step down in the face of anti-government protests during which more than 450 people were killed. Most of the dead were protesters killed by Iraqi security forces, which have incorporated some of the Iran-backed terrorist groups. Iran’s influence in the country has been one of the grievances voiced by the protesters.

No to US–Iran War

Trump said he doesn’t want a war with Iran, but if there was one, “it wouldn’t last very long.”

“I don’t think Iran would want that to happen,” he said.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami said on Jan. 2 that the Islamic regime wasn’t moving toward war with the United States but wasn’t afraid of any conflict, according to semi-official agency Tasnim.

“We are not leading the country to war, but we are not afraid of any war, and we tell America to speak correctly with the Iranian nation. We have the power to break them several times over and are not worried,” he said.

Iran’s army chief Maj. Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi told state-controlled IRIB that Iranian forces were ready to fight. “Our armed forces … monitor all moves, and if anyone makes the slightest mistake, they will decisively react, and if the situation heats up, we will show our abilities to the enemy,” he said.

Iran Under Pressure

The protests in Iraq coincided with mass protests in Iran, where the Islamic regime acknowledged that up to 200,000 took to the streets. At least 208 people are believed to have been killed, Amnesty International reported on Dec. 2.

In response, Trump put sanctions on three leaders of Iran-backed terror groups in Iraq.

Iran’s economy has been placed under extensive sanctions imposed by Trump since 2018 after he quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal entered into by his predecessor.

Trump has offered to negotiate a new deal, but wants it to address not only Iran’s nuclear program, but also matters such as its ballistic missile program and funding of terror groups across the Middle East. Tehran has refused to talk until the United States returns to the deal—which Iran has since breached—and lifts sanctions.

Zachary Stieber, Reuters, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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