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US warns ships of possible Iranian action in Middle East waterways

The US Maritime Administration cited rising threats after an American drone strike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

FILE – In this Sunday, July 21, 2019, photo, two armed members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard inspect the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday by the Guard, in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The U.S. airstrike that killed a prominent Iranian general in Baghdad raises tensions even higher between Tehran and Washington after months of trading attacks and threats across the wider Middle East. (Morteza Akhoondi/Mehr News Agency via AP, File)
FILE – In this Sunday, July 21, 2019, photo, two armed members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard inspect the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday by the Guard, in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The U.S. airstrike that killed a prominent Iranian general in Baghdad raises tensions even higher between Tehran and Washington after months of trading attacks and threats across the wider Middle East. (Morteza Akhoondi/Mehr News Agency via AP, File)

By Nasser Karimi, Amir Vahdat and Jon Gambrell, Associated Press

The US government is warning ships across Middle Eastern waterways crucial to global energy supplies that there is the “possibility of Iranian action against US maritime interests” in the region.

The US Maritime Administration put out the warning on Tuesday, citing the rising threat after an American drone strike in Baghdad killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani.

The warning came as Washington braced for Iran to respond to the killing of its most powerful general, noting heightened military readiness in the country and preparing for a possible “tit-for-tat” attempt on the life of an American military commander.

Oil tankers were targeted in mine attacks last year which the US blamed on Iran.

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(PA Graphics)

Tehran denied being responsible though it did seize oil tankers around the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s crude oil travels.

President Donald Trump ordered the January 2 strike against General Soleimani after the death of an American contractor in Iraq.

Now, amid massive demonstrations in Iran’s public mourning period for Gen Soleimani and a state TV report of a deadly stampede at his funeral, officials believe the next steps by America’s long-time foe will determine the course of the latest crisis.

Officials say American intelligence is not clear on whether Iran’s latest military moves are designed to bolster Tehran’s defences or prepare for an offensive strike, but the US is continuing to reinforce its own positions in the region, including repositioning some forces.

One official said the US anticipated a “major” attack of some type within the next day or two.

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Mark Esper (Evan Vucci/AP)

US embassies in a growing number of countries outside the Middle East are issuing security alerts to American citizens.

Embassies in France, Algeria and Morocco issued alerts on Tuesday warning of “heightened tension in the Middle East that may result in security risks to US citizens abroad”. The warnings also have been issued at some embassies in sub-Saharan Africa. The US Embassy in Tanzania issued one on Monday.

On Monday, defence secretary Mark Esper said no decision had been made about withdrawing troops from Iraq. Pro-Iranian factions in the Iraqi parliament have pushed to oust American troops following Gen Soleimani’s killing on Iraqi soil.

Mr Esper spoke to reporters after a letter from a US Marine general seemed to suggest a withdrawal had been ordered in response to a vote by the Iraqi parliament over the weekend. “There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Mr Esper said.

Gen Soleimani’s death, which has sparked major protests, further nuclear development and new threats of violence, has raised the prospect of a wide and unpredictable conflict in the Middle East and escalated tensions between Iran and the US.

The two nations have gone from one flare-up to another since Mr Trump began his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran shortly after taking office. He abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed crushing economic sanctions, aimed at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and deterring the sort of regional aggression spearheaded by Gen Soleimani.

Two US sources said targeting Gen Soleimani was not representative of a wholesale shift in American policy towards Iran, despite secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s comments on Sunday that the US was targeting Tehran’s “actual decision-makers” rather than its network of proxy allies.

Mr Trump has repeatedly contended that he is not seeking regime change in Iran, as has been pushed by some of his more hawkish advisers.

One official said some Iranian ships have spread out, and while the intent is not immediately clear, they could move rapidly to attack.

The US military has increased protection of its forces, particularly in Iraq. Officials said a number of the recently deployed soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division had moved into Iraq from Kuwait to increase security for Americans there.

The US military has stopped all training of Iraqi forces to focus on force protection, officials said.

As of Monday, officials said, there had not been a broadly distributed order or recommendation to increase security at military installations worldwide. Instead, decisions were being left up to the commanders.

The US military’s concern about its vulnerability to Iranian attack in the Persian Gulf region has been at a heightened state since the spring, when the administration reported it was getting intelligence indications that Iran was planning attacks on US interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

The Pentagon sent additional forces to the Gulf at that point, and in July it worked out an arrangement with the government of Saudi Arabia to send US forces to a large base deep in the Saudi desert, in less obvious range of Iranian missiles.

PA

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