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Thu 18 Jul 2019 02:32 PM

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US sends troops to Saudi Arabia over Iran crisis

Official says United States has sent 500 soldiers to Saudi Arabia as part of an earlier deployment of forces to the Middle East

US sends troops to Saudi Arabia over Iran crisis
(MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images - for illustrative purposes only)

The US has sent 500 soldiers to Saudi Arabia as part of an earlier deployment of forces to the Middle East, according to a US official, boosting support for the kingdom in its increasingly hostile rivalry with Iran.

CNN had reported earlier that they would be based at the Prince Sultan air base and comprised half the additional 1,000 troops the Pentagon announced last week would be headed to the region. The US official, who asked not to be identified, declined to detail what role the forces have in Saudi Arabia nor when they arrived.

The US withdrew most of its troops from Saudi Arabia in 2003 and handed control of the Prince Sultan base to Saudi officials the same year. It simultaneously transferred its Combined Air Operations Center to neighboring Qatar. The stationing of US soldiers in the kingdom has been a flash point, with some objecting to non-Muslim forces in a country that hosts Islam’s holiest sites. Their presence until 2003 had helped to radicalize militants, including Osama bin Laden.

Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Rebecca Rebarich said the US had “no official announcement at this time,” adding that the military “continually works to manage our force posture in the region and will continue to do this in cooperation with our partners and allies.”

Tensions between the US and Iran have soared, rattling oil markets, amid a spate of attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf region, the shooting down of an American drone, the British capture of a ship carrying Iranian crude and Iran’s seizure of a tanker that it said was smuggling fuel. Last month President Donald Trump said he called off a planned strike on Iran to retaliate over the downing of the drone.

The move is likely to be seen as an escalation in Iran. In an interview with Bloomberg in New York on Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the US presence in the region foments instability, while its arms sales to Saudi Arabia make the situation “flammable.”

“The problem in our region is not the $16 billion a year that we spend on defense, it’s the $67 billion that Saudi Arabia spends on buying weapons from the US and other Western countries,” Zarif said. “That has to stop.”

Foreign policy is one of the few areas where Trump has faced some resistance from congressional Republicans, particularly in his approach to Saudi Arabia. Trump has cultivated a close relationship with the kingdom - it was the first country he visited as president - and he has described the traditional ally as a bulwark against what he calls Iran’s malign activity in the region.

Trump last year pulled the US out of a 2015 accord designed to prevent Iran from developing capabilities that would allow it to build a nuclear weapon. Iran has since been taking steps to reinvigorate its nuclear program, which it says is designed for peaceful purposes.

Zarif, the foreign minister, said work on nuclear enrichment would continue and that while Iran has the capacity to build a weapon “very rapidly,” it wouldn’t.

“If we wanted to build nuclear weapons, we could’ve built it a long time ago,” he said. “If we wanted to, but we don’t.”