Trump dismisses report of plan to send troops to Middle East as ally questions Iran threat

John Fritze, Tom Vanden Brook and David Jackson

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday dismissed a report that his administration is planning to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East to deal with Iran, but then threatened to send far more troops if needed. 

"Would I do that? Absolutely," Trump told reporters gathered Tuesday when asked about a New York Times report that his administration was considering a military build-up. "But we have not planned for that."

Hours later, a top official in the U.S.-led effort to defeat ISIS disputed assessments that the threat posed by Iran had increased.

British Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, the No. 2 officer in Operation Inherent Resolve, told Pentagon reporters the threat was, in fact, not higher. His comments were at odds with U.S. officials, who justified the deployment of B-52 bombers and warships on the alleged higher threat. 

Navy Capt. Bill Ubran, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement that Ghrika was wrong. Ubran said the remarks "run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region." The statement was remarkable for refuting a top commander in the region who has the latest intelligence at his disposal.

The dispute came amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The Trump administration has warned ships that "Iran or its proxies" could be targeting maritime traffic in the region. And the Pentagon is deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged threats from Tehran.

Seconds after disputing the New York Times report on troops planning, Trump increased his threats on Tehran, suggesting if the administration does send service members to the region "we’d send a hell of lot more troops than that."

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented a military plan to White House officials that calls for sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or speed up nuclear weapon development, the New York Times reported on Monday.

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Trump's remarks, made as the president was leaving for a trip to Louisiana to discuss U.S. energy policy, came a day after he threatened Iran with a "bad problem" following news that Saudi Arabian oil tankers were sabotaged near the Persian Gulf. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to comment on the New York Times story. 

"We fundamentally do not see a war with Iran," Pompeo said when asked about the report during a joint news conference in Sochi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He said the U.S. wants Iran to stop funding terrorist groups and to "behave like a normal country."

Lavrov said he hoped the report was "just a rumor" and expressed fear that tensions could spark a military confrontation. 

"This region is so tense with different conflicts and different situations," Lavrov said, adding that he told Pompeo he hopes they can find a "political solution" to the Iran situation so it does not "tip over to the military scenario."

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Saudi Arabia said Monday two of its oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in attacks that caused "significant damage" to the vessels, one of them as it was en route to pick up Saudi oil to take to the United States.

A Pentagon spokesman remained non-committal. 

"As a matter of long-standing policy, we are not going to discuss or speculate on potential or alleged future operations or plans," said Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen

President Donald Trump meets with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the Oval Office on Monday.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump dismisses report of plan to send troops to Middle East as ally questions Iran threat