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Trump names another interim defence chief, sparking concern in Washington

Mark Esper, a former Raytheon executive, to replace Patrick Shanahan in the top post
Mark Esper was appointed the new acting secretary of defence on 18 June (AFP)

United States lawmakers have expressed concern over President Donald Trump's decision to appoint another acting secretary of defense instead of nominating someone to take up the position on a more permanent basis.

The Trump administration's outgoing interim defence secretary, Patrick Shanahan, stepped down on Tuesday amid reports of domestic violence in his family.

Trump then appointed Mark Esper, the secretary of the army and a former executive at US military contractor Raytheon, to replace Shanahan on an interim basis.

That drew the ire of several senior American lawmakers, who have argued that Washington needs a permanent Pentagon chief - especially as US relations in the Middle East remain tense on a host of issues.

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James Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stressed the need for a permanent secretary of defense to be confirmed by Congress.

"As I've said before, for the sake of our national security, we need a confirmed secretary of defense - not just an acting - and I hope we can get to that point as quickly as possible," he said in a press release on Tuesday.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said it was a bad time for the United States not to have stable leadership at the Pentagon.

"This is a very difficult time, with everything going on in Iran and with provocations and counteractions. And to have no secretary of defense at this time? It's appalling, and it shows the chaos in this administration," he told reporters.

The US has gone without a permanent secretary of defence since the December 2018 resignation of James Mattis, who stepped down in outrage over Trump's sudden decision to pull US troops out of Syria.

This week's round of uncertainty over the job - one of the most significant posts in the US government - comes as tensions continue to rise between Washington and Tehran.

'Trump does not want war'

Last week, the US accused Iran of attacking oil tankers in the strategic Gulf of Oman, and on Monday, the Pentagon announced plans to deploy another 1,000 troops to the region to counter those alleged Iranian threats.

"The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behaviour by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region," Shanahan said in a statement on the eve of his resignation, Reuters reported.

The Pentagon last week also released a video showing what it said was an Iranian boat that pulled up alongside one of the stricken tankers and removed a mine attached to its hull.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denied the US charges, which he said were made without "a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence".

Amid weeks of ongoing tensions between Washington and Tehran, hawkish US officials, including US National Security Adviser John Bolton, have pushed for a military confrontation with Iran.

But on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to seek to dispel notions that the Trump administration was looking to go to war.

"President Trump does not want war and we will continue to communicate that message while doing the things that are necessary to protect American interests in the region," Pompeo said.