BAGHDAD (AFP) - Washington is "prepared to react" if Teheran launches an attack to mark the first anniversary of the killing of powerful Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the head of US forces in the Middle East warned on Sunday (Dec 20).
"We are prepared to defend ourselves, our friends and partners in the region, and we're prepared to react if necessary," General Kenneth McKenzie, who heads the US Central Command (Centcom), told journalists.
He was touring the region weeks before the anniversary of the Jan 3 killing of Gen Soleimani by a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport.
"My assessment is we are in a very good position and we'll be prepared for anything the Iranians or their proxies acting for them might choose to do," Gen McKenzie, a four-star marine general, told a small group of journalists in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location in the region.
The Centcom commander said he had recently visited Baghdad, where he met with the head of the anti-jihadist coalition, American General Paul Calvert, as well as the Iraqi army chief of staff, General Abdul Amir Yarallah.
Gen McKenzie said he had also gone to Syria to meet with American forces deployed in the small southern base at Al-Tanf, near the border with Jordan and Iraq.
In an apparent sign of US military leaders' concerns about Iranian intentions after Gen Soleimani's killing, Gen McKenzie's current tour was not announced in advance.
Similarly, last week's visits by General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Afghanistan were kept secret until he had left the region.
"I talk to my commanders about it every day and I think we will be ready," Gen McKenzie said.
Even as the US Army continues troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan ordered by President Donald Trump - with a goal of drawing down to 2,500 in each country by Jan 15 - the Pentagon has substantially reinforced its posture around Iraq to dissuade Iran from launching any attack.
The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz has been patrolling Gulf waters since late November, and two American B-52 bombers recently overflew the region in a demonstration of strength clearly aimed at Iran and its allies.
Still, a volley of rockets exploded Sunday near the US embassy in Baghdad, causing material damage but no casualties, according to Iraqi security forces.
It was the third attack on American military and diplomatic installations there since an indefinite truce was agreed with pro-Iranian groups in October.
The US embassy and other foreign military and diplomatic sites have been targeted by dozens of rockets and roadside bomb attacks since the autumn of 2019.
Western and Iraqi officials have blamed hardline groups, including the pro-Iran faction Kataeb Hezbollah.
In October, these groups agreed to an indefinite truce, but Sunday's attack is the third apparent violation.
The first, on Nov 17, saw a volley of rockets slam into the US embassy and various parts of the Iraqi capital, killing one young woman.
On Dec 10, two convoys transporting logistical equipment for the US-led coalition helping Iraqi troops fight jihadists were targeted with roadside bombs.
'Out of order'
The attacks have been claimed by groups that both US and Iraqi officials have described as smokescreens for well-known Iran-aligned armed factions in Iraq.
But in an unusual move, several factions condemned Sunday's attack.
Mr Moqtada Sadr, a populist cleric and former militia leader, tweeted that "no one has the right to use weapons outside of the state." Even Kataeb Hezbollah, which has been blamed for other attacks, issued an online statement.
"Bombing the (US) embassy of evil at this time is considered out of order," it said, while also condemning the US embassy's use of the C-RAM system.