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'A clear deterrent': US flies two B-52 bombers near Iranian waters

Washington says warplanes flew over Gulf to deter Iran from attacking American or allied targets in region
B-52H is capable of flying at high subsonic speeds and carrying nuclear or conventional ordnance (AFP/File photo)

The United States flew two B-52H bombers over the Gulf near Iranian territory on Wednesday, the third such show-of-force air mission in recent weeks. 

US Central Command said the long-range air mission was part of an effort to deter potential attacks ahead of the 3 January anniversary of the killing of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The two warplanes flew from an air base in North Dakota to deliver "a clear deterrent message to anyone who intends to do harm to Americans or American interests," the command said in a statement.

The US carried out similar missions on 10 December and 21 November. 

The United States frequently uses show-of-force flights to deter attacks in the Middle East and Asia and underscore American air power, but launching three such missions within weeks of each other is unusual. 

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"The United States continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to deter any potential adversary, and make clear that we are ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests," General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, head of the US military's Central Command, said in the statement.

As in earlier statements about the recent show-of-force missions around Iran, McKenzie stressed that the US does "not seek conflict," but said no one should underestimate the US ability to defend forces "or to act decisively in response to any attack".

Ahead of Wednesday's flight, a senior US military official highlighted the upcoming anniversary of the US assassination of Soleimani, telling reporters that a recent US intelligence report indicates Iran wants to "avenge that killing" and has "potential for other more complex attacks" against Americans in Iraq, Fox News reported.

"We're seeing planning for, particularly in Iraq, complex attacks that require Iranian assistance in order to be pulled off," the official told the news outlet. 

Last week, the US Navy also announced that a nuclear submarine was being deployed to the Gulf, in another show of force directed at Iran.

On alert in Baghdad

The US embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday announced that it sent Iraq's army 30 armoured vehicles to secure Baghdad's Green Zone, ahead of the anniversary. 

"The United States is committed to helping the Iraqi military maintain the security of Iraq and Baghdad," the embassy said in a Facebook post.

Several rockets, which caused no casualties, have been fired recently at the Green Zone, which houses the US embassy. 

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US President Donald Trump, who has announced plans to cut the number of troops in Iraq to 2,500 early next year, has said he would "hold Iran responsible" if any Americans were killed in rocket attacks.

Iran, for its part, has denied any role in the incidents and has called the US accusation "repetitive, baseless and fabricated".

Tensions between Tehran and Washington began to boil around the end of November following the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Iran has accused the US and Israel of involvement in the assassination, which both countries have denied. 

Iran has claimed the assassination was an attempt to push it into a war with Washington before Trump leaves office, but has vowed not to respond "in the game field the [enemy] has designated". 

On Monday, a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry warned Israel not to cross "red lines" in the Gulf during the final days of Trump's presidency following unconfirmed reports that an Israeli submarine had crossed through the Suez Canal and was headed towards the Gulf.

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