WASHINGTON — International worries that the Trump administration is sliding toward war with Iran flared into the open Tuesday amid skepticism about its claims that the Islamic Republic poses a growing threat to the U.S. and its allies in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

The U.S. military rebutted doubts expressed by a British general about such a threat. President Donald Trump denied a report that the administration has updated plans to send more than 100,000 troops to counter Iran if necessary. But Trump then stirred the controversy further by saying: “Would I do that? Absolutely.”

The general’s remarks exposed international skepticism over the American military buildup in the Middle East, a legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was predicated on false intelligence. U.S. officials have not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat amid other signs of allied unease.

As tensions in the region started to surge, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his nation was worried about the risk of accidental conflict “with an escalation that is unintended really on either side.” Then on Tuesday, Spain temporarily pulled one of its frigates from the U.S.-led combat fleet heading toward the Strait of Hormuz. That was followed by the unusual public challenge to the Trump administration by the general.

“No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” said Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, a senior officer in the U.S.-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State group. Ghika, speaking in a video conference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon that the coalition monitors the presence of Iranian-backed forces “along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in.”

But he added, “There are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and we don’t see any increased threat from any of them at this stage.”

Late in the day, in a rare public rebuttal of an allied military officer, U.S. Central Command said Ghika’s remarks “run counter to the identified credible threats” from Iranian-backed forces in the Mideast. In a written statement, Central Command said the coalition in Baghdad has increased the alert level for all service members in Iraq and Syria.

“As a result, [the coalition] is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to U.S. forces in Iraq,” the statement said.

At the White House, Trump, who has repeatedly argued for avoiding long-term conflicts in the Mideast, discounted a New York Times report that the U.S. has updated plans that could send up to 120,000 troops to counter Iran if it attacked American forces.

“Would I do that? Absolutely,” he told reporters. “But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

Reinforcing Trump’s denial, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a joint news conference in Sochi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran.”

A Trump administration official said a recent small meeting of national security officials was not focused on a military response to Iran, but instead concentrated on a range of other policy options, including diplomacy and economic sanctions. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Lavrov said Pompeo told him that a potential deployment of 120,000 U.S. troops to the Mideast was only a “rumor.” Lavrov said the international community needs to focus on diplomacy with Iran, including on the potentially explosive issue of Iran’s nuclear program, which is constrained by a U.S.-brokered deal in 2015 that Trump has abandoned.

U.S. Iran envoy Brian Hook told reporters traveling with Pompeo in Brussels that the secretary of state shared intelligence on Iran with allies since “Europe shares our concerns about stability in the Gulf and the Middle East.” What the Europeans do not share, however, is Washington’s more aggressive approach to Iran.

“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side but ends with some kind of conflict,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters in Brussels.

“What we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking,” Hunt said.

Last week, U.S. officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on U.S. forces and interests in the Mideast, but Washington has not spelled out that threat.

The U.S. has about 5,000 troops in Iraq and about 2,000 in Syria as part of the coalition campaign to defeat the Islamic State group there. It also has long had a variety of air and naval forces stationed in Bahrain, Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf, partly to support military operations against IS and partly as a counter to Iranian influence.

Gen. Ghika’s comments came amid dramatically heightened tensions in the Middle East. The U.S. in recent days has ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf region, plus four B-52 bombers. It also is moving a Patriot air-defense missile battery to an undisclosed country in the area. As of Tuesday, the Lincoln and its strike group had passed through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea, but officials would not disclose their exact location.

Tensions rose another notch with reports Sunday that four commercial vessels anchored off the United Arab Emirates had been damaged by sabotage.

A U.S. military team was sent to the UAE to investigate, and one U.S. official said the initial assessment is that each ship has a 5- to 10-foot hole in it, near or just below the water line. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation, said the early interpretation is that the holes were caused by explosive charges.

The official on Tuesday acknowledged seeing some photographs of the damage to the ships, but those images have not been made public. The official also said that the team is continuing to conduct forensic testing on the ship damage and that U.S. leaders are still awaiting the final report. The team’s initial assessment is that the damage was done by Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies, but they are still going through the evidence and have not yet reached a final conclusion, the official said.

———

AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee and AP writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(10) comments

threecents

Way back when Hillary ran against Obama, I picked Obama, despite his lack of experience, because he was so cool and thoughtful, someone who would not freak out and could handle a tough situation - an inspiring leader who does his homework. Now we have this unbalanced and unprincipled old guy who gets his info from FOX news. It is amazing that he has not gotten us into a war yet. I am holding my breath. He maybe screwing up values, the economy, healthcare, and the environment for future generations, but at least we are not at war right now.

MRS M

Agree, three. The only thing I'd add is that not only could Trump lead us into war because of imbalanced thinking, and extreme ignorance of both diplomacy and history.......but for the very selfish reasons that he frequently creates major issues to distract and change the national dialogue, when things are not going his way (e.g. recall a dangerous caravan threatening national security, and the armed forces sent out, the week of the November elections). Nothing (NOTHING!) is beneath his narcissistic thinking and self-promoting, criminal drive to survive as his presidency is further threatened. For this he is terrifying.

DickD

Hard to say where all of this goes, but draft dodger Trump needs to go over and do some fighting, quit hiding under his father's couch.

Dwasserba

"But Trump then stirred the controversy further by saying: 'Would I do that? Absolutely.”' Gag this man.

phydeaux994

The last Republican elected by the Electoral College started a War in the Middle East that caused great damage to our Country and the World that we are still suffering from. Now another incompetent Republican elected by the Electoral College is doing the same thing. Don’t the RRR(RadicalRightRepublicans) ever catch on? Their whole lives are spent punishing the American people. Our brave soldiers dying in unnecessary Wars, our Women losing the Right to have control over their own bodies, our Agricultural Community that sustains us being decimated, our Government in chaos, the very foundation of our Country, the Constitution and the Rule of Law, ignored, our allies have become our enemies and our enemies our new “friends” while they seek to destroy us. The Republicans want to RULE us, subjugate us, tell us how to live, control who can live in America, control who has “Rights” and who doesn’t, based on your color and your religion and your gender and your sexual preference and your political views. Why are we letting this happen people? Other than that, everything is peachy.

rbtdt5

Wow. And another one over the cliff. Say hi to DickD and Vic down there. DOOOOOM AND GLOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!!

DickD

Just get ready to buy me a drink at the Main Cup, in 2020. [beam]

Nicki

[thumbup] phy! Truth!

bpswp

The Republican way, start a war! Every Republican president since Eisenhower has done the same.

gabrielshorn2013

Makes a great talking point, but not entirely true. WW2-Roosevelt-D, Korea-Truman-D, Indochina wars (including Vietnam)-Kennedy-D, Bosnian conflict-Clinton-D, etc, etc. Here's a link:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_States

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Engage ideas. This forum is for the exchange of ideas, insights and experiences, not personal attacks. Ad hominen criticisms are not allowed. Focus on ideas instead.
TURN OFF CAPS LOCK.
Don't threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
No trolls. Off-topic comments and comments that bait others are not allowed.
No spamming. This is not the place to sell miracle cures.
Say it once. No repeat or repetitive posts, please.
Help us. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.