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Bomber task force completes first CENTCOM mission as Iran warns US forces to leave region

An Airman piloting an F-35 Lightning II receive fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 28th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron, May 12, 2019 at an undisclosed location. The 28th EARS maintains a 24/7 presence in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, supporting U.S. and Coalition aircraft in various operations in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Keifer Bowes)

A U.S. Air Force bomber task force completed its first mission in Central Command Sunday amid heightened tensions with Iran, where over the weekend officials called for U.S. forces to leave the Persian Gulf region and dubbed the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln a “target.”

The bomber mission was the first for the unit since it was deployed to the region last week, in response to what U.S. officials have described as indications of Iranian threats against U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria and at sea.

B-52H Stratofortress aircraft assigned to the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron from Louisiana’s Barksdale Air Force Base took off from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, U.S. Air Forces Central Command said in a brief statement Monday. Additional bombers in the task force had been deployed to an unspecified base in the Middle East.

“They’re here to defend our forces and interests,” said Lt. Col. Christine Millette, a spokeswoman for Air Forces Central Command. Millette did not provide further mission details.

AFCENT also released images of F-15 and F-35 aircraft taking part in “deterrence” patrols in the Middle East. The aircraft routinely patrol the airspace in the region, where the U.S. is leading international coalitions battling militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

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Along with the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, the bombers were ordered into CENTCOM after what White House national security adviser John Bolton said last week were a “number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran.

The show of force is the latest in a series of bilateral actions in recent months. President Donald Trump’s administration has sought to curb Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs and halt its support of proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen by ratcheting up economic pressure, including reimposed sanctions against the country’s oil, shipping and banking sectors.

Over the weekend, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the economic pressure “fully fledged and unprecedented war,” the Iranian ISNA news agency reported. Rouhani called on Iranians to unite to find solutions to the economic strain, it said.

But Iranian military officials sought to downplay America’s recent military movements.

Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the newly appointed head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, told parliament on Sunday that Washington was engaged in a “psychological war” and that the “comings and goings of their military” are a normal matter, ISNA reported.

While an aircraft carrier may have been a “serious threat for us in the past … now it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities,” said Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the Guard Corps’ aerospace division, the agency reported.

“If (the Americans) make a move, we will hit them in the head,” he said.

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Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi, commander of Iran’s naval forces, called for the Americans to exit the region.

“The presence of the Americans in the Persian Gulf has reached its end and they must leave,” he said, according to ISNA.

In addition to the carrier group and bombers, Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan on Friday approved the movement of the amphibious transport dock USS Arlington and a Patriot missile battery to CENTCOM “in response to indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations” against American troops or interests in the region.

Aboard the Arlington are an unspecified number of Marines, amphibious vehicles, landing craft and aircraft capable of supporting amphibious assault, special operations or expeditionary warfare missions. The Patriot battery is a long-range air defense system capable of countering tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced aircraft, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The recent threat from Iran is to U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria — mainly from Iranian-controlled Shiite militias — and on the seas in the Persian Gulf region, a senior military official told Stars and Stripes last week. U.S. officials have observed Iranian-controlled vessels transporting military hardware including missiles, said the official who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. has “done all the right things to increase our security posture to the best of our ability,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on CNBC on Saturday. “We also want to make sure that we had deterrent forces in place, so in the event that Iran decided to come after an American interest — whether that be in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or any place in the Middle East — we were prepared to respond to them in an appropriate way.”

It’s not uncommon for the U.S. to deploy warships, including a carrier strike group, and several bombers to CENTCOM. B-1 Lancers and the USS John C. Stennis were both in the region earlier this year until a little over a month ago.

The Lincoln had already been slated to enter the region as it transited from Virginia to its new homeport in San Diego, but its timeline was expedited in light of the threats, U.S. officials have said.

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.