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US flies bombers over Middle East in apparent message to Iran

Saudi, Israeli and Qatari jets accompanied two American B-52 bombers 'at different points during the flight', Pentagon says
US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress flying with Saudi F-15SAs during a mission, 27 January (AFP/US Air Force handout)
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Washington

The US Air Force - in cooperation with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - flew jet-powered long-range bombers over the Middle East on Sunday in an apparent show of force against Iran.

"A pair of US Air Force B-52H 'Stratofortresses' flew a multinational patrol mission across the Middle East today to deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the US military's commitment to security in the region," US Central Command (Centcom), the Pentagon's command unit responsible for the Middle East, said in a statement.

"Multiple partner nations and US Air Force fighter aircraft accompanied the US bombers at different points during the flight, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar."

It is not clear if the exercise included direct coordination between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf countries do not have formal relations with Israel.

The Israeli military said in a Tweet on Sunday that Israeli F-15 fighter jets accompanied the US aircraft through Israel's airspace.

"This flight is part of the joint strategic cooperation with US forces, which is pivotal in maintaining the security of Israeli and Middle Eastern skies," the Israeli military said.

Saudi cooperation

On Monday, Saudi Arabia described the flyover as a "bilateral exercise" involving F-15s from the kingdom's air force and American B-52 bombers.

"This exercise highlights the abilities and aerial control and operational compatibility, and it is a continuation of the joint cooperation between the Royal Saudi Air Force and the US Air Force to preserve the security and stability of the region," the Saudi government said through its official news agency, SPA.

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The joint exercise comes weeks after US President Joe Biden pledged to end US support for Saudi Arabia's "offensive operations" in Yemen.

On Sunday, the kingdom said it intercepted Houthi attacks by missiles and drones on oil facilities in the eastern cities of Dhahran and Ras Tanura - the latest in a flurry of such operations by the Yemeni rebels in recent days.

The Biden administration has said that it remains committed to Saudi Arabia's security. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington is "concerned" about the recent Houthi attacks.

"These are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace," Psaki told reporters on Monday. "The attacks are unacceptable and dangerous and put the lives of innocent civilians at risk, including Americans."

She added that Washington is working in "close cooperation" with Riyadh to address security threats to the kingdom.

"As part of our interagency process, we'll look for ways to improve support for Saudi Arabia's ability to defend its territory against threats," Psaki said.

Iran tensions

The US military exercise with regional allies comes amid a broader confrontation with Iran across the region as Washington and Tehran remain at an impasse halting the revival of the nuclear deal.

Late in February, the US launched air strikes targeting Iran-backed groups in Syria after rocket attacks blamed on militias aligned with Tehran targeted American forces in Iraq.

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Rocket attacks continued in Iraq in March after the American retaliation in Syria, further fuelling tensions.

The B-52 flyover was the fourth deployment of bombers in the Middle East this year, according to the Pentagon. B-52 jets are capable of carrying as much as three tonnes of bombs.

"The US Air Force routinely moves aircraft and personnel into, out of, and around the US Central Command area of responsibility to meet mission requirements, and to train with regional partners, underscoring the importance of strategic partnerships," Centcom said in its statement.

Earlier this year after a similar US Air Force exercise, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force, downplayed the military strength of the American bombers. 

"B-52s are old planes and the only reason for their recent deployment is because the US is scared and worried about what we might do," Hajizadeh said in a short documentary aired on Iranian state TV in January.