Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced Sunday night that he was reversing his order to withdraw the aircraft carrier Nimitz and its strike group from the Middle East, acknowledging threats of imminent revenge from Iran for the killing of a key military leader last January.
"Due to the recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials, I have ordered the USS Nimitz to halt its routine redeployment," Miller said in a brief statement that did not reference particular threats.
He said the Nimitz and its strike group, the guided-missile cruisers Princeton and Philippine Sea, and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Sterett, will now remain on station in the U.S. Central Command area of operations.
On New Year's Eve, the Pentagon announced that Miller had ordered the withdrawal of the Nimitz and its strike group from the region. The ships, along with the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group carrying 2,500 Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, had been operating off the Somali coast to safeguard the withdrawal of hundreds of U.S. troops.
As the Nimitz prepared to withdraw, however, Iran continued threatening retaliatory violence ahead of the anniversary of the Jan. 3, 2020, U.S. drone strike at Baghdad's main airport that killed Iranian Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq.
In recent weeks, the U.S. has flown B-52 Stratofortress bombers near Iran on 36-hour round-trip missions from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota in a show of force -- an acknowledgment of escalating tensions.
In Baghdad Sunday, thousands of demonstrators held a mock funeral procession to the airport and rallied in the city's main square to chant anti-American slogans and call for revenge over Soleimani's killing. The U.S. blamed the Soleimani-led Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for the killings of hundreds of U.S. troops in the Iraq war.
On Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran had intelligence that "Israeli agency provocateurs" might attack Americans to provoke a war with Iran. That would put Trump "in a bind with a fake casus belli," Zarif said.
Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami pledged revenge for Trump's "criminal and cowardly" order to kill Soleimani, Iran's Tasnim news agency, which has close ties to the IRGC, reported Sunday.
On Dec. 20, Trump took to Twitter to warn Iran of swift retaliation for any revenge attacks on Americans.
"Some friendly health advice to Iran," he wrote. "If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.