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Despite Coronavirus, Pentagon May Keep Troops in ME to Counter Iran

Despite Coronavirus, Pentagon May Keep Troops in ME to Counter Iran
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By Staff, Agencies 

US War Secretary Mark Esper is looking at extending the deployment of a reaction force sent to the Middle East to face Iran.

According to three sources and documents provided to The Daily Beast, the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in the Mideast in January. The roughly 3,000 paratroopers operate as an immediate reaction force, built “to deploy on short notice to global hotspots.”

The extended deployment, said to be requested by US Central Command [CENTCOM] chief Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, would signal that the military does not believe the spread of the novel coronavirus has reduced the risk of escalation with Iraqi resistance groups. 

But it’s causing confusion and alarm within the brigade, which is currently in Kuwait while Esper has ordered a 60-day freeze on troop movements overseas. Sources told The Daily Beast that seeking the deployment extension was McKenzie’s call, not a result of the freeze, although the extension would last through the end of the freeze. 

“We hate that this was an unplanned deployment and that it’s impossible to have any certainty about when we will get home,” a soldier in the brigade told The Daily Beast.

It’s unclear when the brigade was supposed to return home. One source said their deployment was open-ended and at the pleasure of McKenzie. But a different source said that before Esper’s stop-movement order, the brigade had prepared for redeployment home. Ahead of a decision, the brigade is operating on the expectation that it will remain in the region until the end of May, which would roughly coincide with the anticipated end of the COVID-19 movement freeze. 

On Monday, a notice from the brigade commander, Col. Andrew Saslav, said the decision on the brigade’s tour was in Esper’s hands after CENTCOM requested the extension. 

“I know this is a crazy time, thanks for all you are doing. I know it is frustrating for you and your families, but we will get through it,” Saslav wrote in a message shared with The Daily Beast. 

Representatives for the brigade and CENTCOM deferred comment to the Pentagon. “For operational security reasons, we are not going to discuss internal deliberations, planning factors or redeployment timelines of specific units,” said Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesperson.

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