The Pentagon is calling on Iran to come to the negotiating table and abandon plans for retaliation following a deadly strike on Iranian Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani earlier this month.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in a Pentagon briefing that the U.S. still sees an option to avoid war with Iran, but is "prepared to deliver a forceful response to defend our interests."
"As we defend our people and interests, let me reiterate that the United States is not seeking a war with Iran," he said. "But we are prepared to finish one."
Military officials have alleged Soleimani was planning an "imminent" attack on Americans when he was taken out by a Hellfire missile fired from an MQ-9 Reaper drone at the Baghdad airport. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to provide specifics about the planned attack in a State Department briefing Tuesday. But Esper said it was fair to characterize the planned attacks as "days away" at the time of Soleimani's death.
Soleimani, Esper said, had "the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on his hands," and was responsible for the murder of his own people as well.
"So this sense that somehow taking somebody who ... [in] the last few months had planned ... or resourced attacks against the United States that resulted in the killing of American and the siege of our embassy in Baghdad and was in Baghdad to coordinate additional attacks -- to somehow suggest that he wasn't a legitimate target, I think is, fanciful," Esper said. "He was clearly on the battlefield. He was conducting, preparing, planning military operations. He was a legitimate target, and his time was due."
As the Defense Department deploys thousands of troops to the Middle East in anticipation of Iranian military action, Esper said the U.S. called on the country to come to the negotiating table and "cease malign activities" in the region to avert military conflict.
"We're not the ones that have escalated this over the past, arguably 40 years, and certainly in the past several months," he said. "It's been Iran and Iranian proxies ... that consistently escalate this in terms of the size, scale, scope of their attacks. We reached the point where we had to act in self-defense. We had to take appropriate action."
In the wake of a dustup involving a widely circulated letter from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely, that appeared to signal plans to withdraw troops from the country, Esper was unequivocal: The U.S. is not leaving.
Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley have characterized the letter as a "draft" and "honest mistake." It was circulated, and reportedly received by Iraqi officials, following a vote in the Iraqi Parliament to pass a resolution in support of ejecting U.S. troops.
Esper said the resolution was nonbinding and noted there are a number of additional steps the Iraqi government would have to take to force the U.S. military's departure.
"There may be people trying to create confusion," he said. "Our policy has not changed. We are in Iraq, and we are there to support Iraqi forces in Iraq."
Esper said he personally had received no communication from the Iraqi government regarding withdrawal.
"I think it's fair to say that many Iraqis recognize the strategic importance of our partnership with them, whether it's training and advising their military to become more effective on the field of battle, or it's working together with them to defeat ISIS [as a] coalition," he said.
"I'm fully confident that the president of the United States will not give us an illegal order," he said.