Ratcheting up tensions in the region, the US deployed two B-52 bombers to the Middle East in a clear message to Iran. The bombers flew a show-of-force mission in the Persian Gulf on Thursday near Iranian airspace.
According to The New York Times, the B-52s were accompanied by aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar, while in the Gulf.
The warplanes flew a 36-hour round-trip mission from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The provocative maneuver was the second time in just three weeks that the US deployed B-52s to the region.
“Potential adversaries should understand that no nation on earth is more ready and capable of rapidly deploying additional combat power in the face of any aggression,” said Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command.
Last month’s B-52 deployment came after a report from the Times said President Trump reviewed options to attack an Iranian nuclear site earlier in November. Since then, Israel has stepped up its provocations in the region and was likely behind the assassination of Iranian scientist Moshen Fakhrizadeh.
Israel and the US have also been warning of possible Iranian attacks despite Tehran’s clear desire to avoid a wider conflict. The Times said a senior military official told reporters on Thursday that US intelligence analysts have detected “planning going on” for possible rocket attacks on US forces by Iran or Shia militias in Iraq.
Iran has warned its allies in Iraq not to provoke the US into a military conflict, but there are various factions within the Shia militias of Iraq, and some have rejected the warning. In response to Iran’s message, the leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia said, “The Americans occupy our country, not yours. We will not listen to you anymore because our motives are 100 percent nationalist.”
In another sign of the split between Shia factions in Iran, militias loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani have withdrawn from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF is an umbrella group of mostly Shia state-sponsored militias. When the US assassinated Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani on January 3rd, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the leader of the PMF, was also killed.
Regardless of the different factions within the Shia militias in Iraq, any violence against US forces in the country between now and January 20th will likely be blamed on Iran.