US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Tuesday the deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf should be seen as a “reminder” of US military power in the region.
But Gates flatly denied that the US was preparing the ground for military strikes against Iran.
“I don’t think we’ll have two carriers for a protracted period of time. So I don’t see it as an escalation. I think it could be seen, though, as a reminder,” Gates told reporters during a visit with Mexican officials.
The arrival of the USS Abraham Lincoln follows a noticeable hardening in US rhetoric against Iran for meddling in Iraq and playing a destabilizing role in the region.
Commander Jeff Davis, a US Navy spokesman, said the Lincoln would overlap with the departing carrier USS Harry Truman by “no more than a day or two.” He said it was a “routine regular replacement.”
CBS News said the Pentagon has ordered new options be drawn up for attacking Iran and that the State Department has begun drafting an ultimatum that would tell Iran to stop meddling or else.
But when asked whether the Pentagon was preparing for military strikes against Iran, Gates said flatly, “No.”
The stepped-up US rhetoric against Iran has come against the backdrop of an intensifying violence in Iraq as US forces clash with Shiite militia “special groups” that the US military say are backed by Iran.
Some 44 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq so far this month, a grim rebound that comes as US “surge” brigades are withdrawing.
Gates said a number of the latest casualties had come from rocketing of the fortified Green Zone and joint security stations from Sadr City, a bastion of followers of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
“We just haven’t seen that for some period of time. So I think that’s the reason for the spike in casualties, sad to say,” he said.
“As we work our way around Sadr City, which we basically have stayed out of, we are encountering the kind of heavy combat” that US forces have experienced in other new areas, Gates said.
“Clearly we are watching it very closely. But I think that General [David] Petraeus is comfortable with the plans we have to bring out at least the five surge brigades,” he said.
Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, has charged that the Quds Force, a covert branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was funding, training and arming Shiite militants to kill US troops.
Petraeus and other military leaders have said that the extent of the Iranian involvement became apparent last month after an Iraqi government crackdown in the southern port of Basra on armed gangs that exploded into violence.
He told Congress earlier this month that the Iranian-backed “special groups” were the greatest long-term threat to a viable democratic Iraq.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last Friday he was increasingly concerned about Iran’s behavior and pointedly warned that “it would be a mistake to think we are out of combat power.”
At the same time, Mullen acknowledged that a third US conflict in the Middle East would be “very stressing for us.”
Gates also has played down the military option until now.
“Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need and, in fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels,” he said in a speech at the US Military Academy at West Point on April 21.