The U.S. will send a "moderate" number of American troops to the Middle East and additional missile-defense capabilities to Saudi Arabia in response to last weekend's attack on oil facilities that President Donald Trump's administration has blamed on Iran, top Pentagon officials said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday that the decision came at the request of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and represented a "first step" in the U.S. response. He reiterated U.S. statements that evidence collected to date shows Iran was responsible for the attacks. The briefing by Esper and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed a meeting of national security officials at the White House.
"Iran is waging a deliberate campaign to destabilize the Middle East," Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. He added that the U.S. has shown "great restraint" in responding so far, but called the strike on Saudi Aramco facilities last Saturday a "dramatic escalation."
Esper and Dunford said that they still are deciding on the specific number of troops and weapons systems but said that the personnel deployment will be relatively small, not numbering in the thousands. They said more details would be forthcoming and they signaled that the U.S. thinks other nations should step up as well.
In addition to the U.S. missile-defense assistance, Esper said "we are calling on many other countries who all have these capabilities to do two things -- stand up and condemn these attacks" and also contribute equipment.
U.S. and Saudi analyses of the attack have described the strike as complex, involving a mix of low-flying drones and cruise missiles flying from the north. The attack exposed glaring vulnerabilities in Saudi Arabia's defense capabilities despite the country's spending hundreds of billions of dollars on weaponry in recent years.
Saudi Arabia already has taken delivery of Patriot-3 hit-to-kill missiles bought years ago and designed to defend against cruise and ballistic missiles. The kingdom earlier this year finalized a long-sought-after contract for Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile interceptors designed to intercept ballistic missiles at higher altitudes. It's not known whether any interceptor batteries have been delivered.
"No single system is going to be able to defend against a threat like" the combination of systems that targeted Saudi Arabia last weekend, Dunford said. "But a layered system of defensive capabilities would mitigate the risk of swarms of drones or other attacks that may come from Iran."
During a news conference earlier Friday, Trump signaled that he's trying to avoid a military conflict. Trump campaigned in 2016 on getting the U.S. out of Middle East conflicts and he's repeatedly criticized the second U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"I will say I think the sanctions work, and the military would work," Trump told reporters. "But that's a very severe form of winning."
While Yemen's Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the assault, analysts say the missiles used wouldn't have enough range to reach the site from the impoverished nation. The missiles and drones resembled Iranian-made weapons, although analysts say more study is needed to definitively link them to Iran.
A Saudi-led coalition has battled the Houthis in Yemen since March 2015, a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and sparked what the U.N. describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
On Friday night, the head of the Houthis' supreme political council said the rebels are halting all drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and are awaiting a "positive response" from the kingdom.
The announcement by council head Mahdi al-Mashat was carried by the Houthi-run al-Masirah satellite TV. The council runs rebel-held areas in Yemen.
But the U.S. and the Saudis blamed the Sept. 14 attack on Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels.
Saudi and U.S. officials said the drones and missiles used were made by Iran, had never before been deployed by Iranian proxy groups, and came from a northerly direction, ruling out Yemen as a launch site. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly said Iran was responsible for the attack. Iran denies any responsibility.
As tensions surged this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that any U.S. or Saudi strike on his country in response to the attacks on the kingdom's critical oil facilities would lead to "all-out war."
"I cannot have any confidence that they did it because we just heard their statement," Zarif said in an interview on CNN. "I know that we didn't do it. I know that the Houthis made a statement that they did it."
Pompeo returned to the U.S. early Friday from a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, saying he wanted to begin building a coalition that would organize a response to Iran.
Meanwhile, the Treasury Department announced Friday that it is sanctioning Iran's central bank and sovereign wealth fund, a move aimed at stamping out any remaining trade the country conducts with Europe and Asia.
"It's going to hell," Trump said of Iran's economy, speaking in the Oval Office where he was hosting the Australian prime minister. "They're practically broke. They are broke."
The latest sanctions affect the central bank and Iran's National Development Fund, "the last remaining source of funds," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who joined Trump in the Oval Office.
"This is very big," Mnuchin said. "We've now cut off all source of funds to Iran."
Separately, Saudi officials on Friday took journalists to the kingdom's crucial Abqaiq oil facility, described by the state-run oil giant Saudi Aramco as "the largest crude oil stabilization plant in the world." It was the first such trip for outsiders to see the damage done to its facilities that have been targeted in a summer-long campaign of attacks.
In Abqaiq, an oil facility in the Arabian Peninsula's sprawling Empty Quarter desert, journalists saw what previously only had been glimpsed in satellite photos released earlier by the U.S.
The weekend attack punched holes in giant metal onion-shaped structures that help separate gas from crude oil. Separation towers there, which process crude oil, were scorched and damaged, with the top of one looking like a melted candle.
Officials said they put out about 10 large fires at the site less than seven hours after the attack. There were at least 18 direct hits on 11 of the spherical structures, five column stabilizers and two small processing facilities, they said.
Abqaiq processes sour crude oil into sweet crude, and it is transported to transshipment points on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea or to refineries for local production. Estimates suggest it can process up to 7 million barrels of crude oil a day. Saudi Arabia produced 9.65 million barrels of crude oil a day in July.
The plant has been targeted before by militants. Al-Qaida-claimed suicide bombers tried but failed to attack the oil complex in February 2006. However, the Sept. 14 attack reached deep inside a facility that analysts long warned was vulnerable, knocking out half of the kingdom's oil production and spiking crude prices this week by a percentage unseen since the 1991 Gulf War.
Saudi Arabia also flew journalists to its Khurais oil field to see damage done to the site, which is believed to produce over 1 million barrels of crude a day. Officials there said 110 contractors evacuated the site after the attack, but there were no injuries. They said the oil field was back online within 24 hours of the attack.
An oil stabilization tower was damaged and other pipes had holes from the attack.
Repair crews swarmed both sites beneath large cranes, working through the heat. Saudi Arabia says it already has restored half of the cut production and hopes to have it fully online by the end of the month.
Information for this article was contributed by Tony Capaccio and Glen Carey of Bloomberg News; by Eileen Sullivan of The New York Times; and by Fay Abuelgasim, Jon Gambrell, Amir Vahdat and staff members of The Associated Press.
Journalists touring damage from last Saturday’s attack at Aramco’s Khurais oil field examine holes in a pipe on Friday.
A Section on 09/21/2019
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