About 100 paratroopers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were wheels up early Wednesday as the first elements of a battalion being sent to the Middle East amid an escalating confrontation with Iran.
"This is why we exist," officials with the 82nd said in the unit's Twitter feed.
The rapid response mission to U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility was ordered following Iran-backed militia members storming the perimeter of the Baghdad U.S. Embassy's heavily fortified "Green Zone."
"Paratroopers have trained and prepared for events like these," the division said. "They are on the way."
The destination of the first elements, from 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, was closely held. But Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in a statement Tuesday night, said the deployment on President Donald Trump's order was "in response to recent events in Iraq."
Earlier Tuesday, about 100 Marines in Kuwait from the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command boarded MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and flew to Baghdad's Green Zone to bolster embassy security.
A U.S. official, speaking on background, said that the total deployment of Marines to embassy security would be "less than 200."
In a flurry of tweets, and in remarks at the New Year's Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago Florida estate, Trump put the blame for the attacks on the Baghdad embassy on Iran and vowed that the developing situation on the ground "will not be a Benghazi. Benghazi should never have happened."
He referred to the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and another U.S. facility in which Ambassador J. Christoper Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
"It's been handled very well," Trump told reporters as he walked into New Year's Eve celebrations. "The Marines came in. We had some great warriors come in. They did a fantastic job. They were there instantaneously, as soon as we heard."
"Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost or damage incurred at any of our facilities. The will pay a very BIG PRICE," Trump said in a following Twitter post. "This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!"
In response, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran's supreme leader, used his English-language Twitter account to dismiss Trump's charges and taunt him.
"You can't do anything," Khameini said. "If you were logical -- which you're not -- you'd see that your crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan" and elsewhere "have made nations hate you."
He said Iran does not seek war, but "If the Islamic Republic decides to challenge & fight, it will do so unequivocally."
The U.S. has blamed Iranian-backed militias in Iraq who are aligned with the Iraqi military under the umbrella of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF) for a series of rocket attacks on U.S. bases in recent months.
The latest rocket attack on a U.S. base near north-central Kirkuk Dec. 27 killed an American contractor and wounded four U.S. troops. In response, the U.S. launched airstrikes Dec. 29 on three locations in Iraq and two in Syria of the Kataib Hezbollah (KH) militia, which is part of the PMF.
Following funerals in Baghdad Tuesday for those killed in the airstrikes, demonstrators chanting "Death to America" marched on the embassy, threw gasoline bombs and sought to scale the outer walls.
There were no injuries to U.S. personnel and all were accounted for, said a U.S. official, speaking on background. In a "show of force," U.S. Apache attack helicopters flew over the embassy compound on Tuesday and dropped flares to deter the demonstrators.
The demonstrators had pitched tents and vowed to remain, but withdrew Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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