WASHINGTON — The United States (US) warned Iran or its allies against any escalation in the wake of Israel’s war with Hamas, two top US officials said on Sunday (Oct 22), hours after the Pentagon moved to step up military readiness in the region.
With tensions mounting, Washington also announced on Sunday it had ordered non-emergency staff to leave its embassy in Iraq.
“We are concerned at the possibility of Iranian proxies escalating their attacks against our own personnel, our own people,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CBS News. “We expect there is a likelihood of escalation.”
“No one should take advantage of this moment to escalate to further attacks on Israel or, for that matter, attacks on us on our personnel.”
Mr Blinken said the United States, which has sent two carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean, was “taking every measure to make sure that we can defend them. And if necessary, respond decisively”.
His words doubled down on an earlier message from Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who warned of a “prospect of significant escalation of attacks on our troops” in the region.
Their comments came amid growing fears that pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon, or other groups supported by Tehran, might take advantage of the tense situation over Gaza to enlarge the conflict and further stretch Israel’s military.
But Mr Austin, speaking to ABC News, issued a stern warning: “If any group or any country is looking to widen this conflict and take advantage of this very unfortunate situation that we see, our advice is: Don’t.”
“We maintain the right to defend ourselves and we won’t hesitate to take the appropriate action,” he added.
The comments from the two senior members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet came hours after the Pentagon said it was upping readiness in the region in response to “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces”.
Mr Austin ordered the activation of air defence systems and notified additional forces that they may be deployed soon.
The steps continued the Biden administration’s response since Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip stormed Israel on Oct 7, taking more than 200 hostages and killing at least 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, and says around 1,500 of the group’s fighters were killed in clashes before its army regained control of the area initially under attack.
Also on Sunday, Mr Biden spoke by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders agreed, after a second aid convoy reached Gaza from Egypt, that such assistance will continue, the White House said.
“The leaders affirmed that there will now be continued flow of this critical assistance into Gaza,” the White House said in a statement.
Mr Austin said he had activated deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery and additional Patriot battalions “throughout the region”.
“Finally, I have placed an additional number of forces on prepare-to-deploy orders as part of prudent contingency planning, to increase their readiness and ability to quickly respond as required,” Mr Austin said.
The State Department announced it had given a directive on Friday for non-emergency staff and eligible family members to leave its embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil, “due to increased security threats against US personnel and interests”.
It also announced an updated version of its travel advisory, warning US citizens not to travel to Iraq.
Armed factions close to Iran have threatened to attack US interests in Iraq over Washington’s support for Israel.
Multiple Iraqi bases used by US-led coalition troops have been targeted in attacks in recent days.
And along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the Israeli army traded fire with the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah amid fears of a new front opening.
The United States had authorised non-essential embassy personnel and their families to leave the embassy in Lebanon last week.
Israel’s military has said it would intensify strikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza ahead of a planned ground invasion.
The military has pounded Gaza with relentless strikes in response to Hamas’s Oct 7 attack, killing more than 4,650 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and reduced swaths of the densely populated territory to ruins. AFP