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US upgrades defense of Persian Gulf allies

Liz De La Torre

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From The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The United States has begun beefing up its approach to defending its Persian Gulf allies against potential Iranian missile strikes, officials say. The defenses are being stepped up in advance of possible increased sanctions against Iran.

The Obama administration has quietly increased the capability of land-based Patriot defensive missiles in several Gulf Arab nations, and one military official said the Navy is increasing the presence of ships capable of knocking out hostile missiles in flight.

The officials discussed aspects of the defensive strategy Saturday on condition of anonymity because some elements are classified.

The moves, part of a broader adjustment in the U.S. approach to missile defense, including in Europe and Asia have been in the works for months. Details have not been publicly announced, in part because of diplomatic sensitivities in Gulf countries which worry about Iranian military capabilities but are cautious about acknowledging U.S. protection.

The White House will send a review of ballistic missile strategy to Congress on Monday that frames the larger shifts. Attention to defense of the Persian Gulf region, a focus on diffuse networks of sensors and weapons and cooperation with Russia are major elements of the study, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Russia opposed Bush administration plans for a land-based missile defense site in Eastern Europe, and President Barack Obama’s decision to walk away from that plan last year was partly in pursuit of new capabilities that might hold greater promise and partly in deference to Russia.

One military official said the adjustments in the Gulf should be seen as prudent defensive measures designed to deter Iran from taking aggressive action in the region, more than as a signal that Washington expects Iran to retaliate for any additional sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton consulted with numerous allies during a visit to London this week. She told reporters that the evident failure of U.S. offers to engage Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program means the U.S. will now press for additional sanctions against the Iranian government.

Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. Central Command chief who is responsible for U.S. military operations across the Middle East, mentioned in several recent public speeches one element of the defensive strategy in the Gulf: upgrading Patriot missile systems, which originally were deployed in the region to shoot down aircraft but now can hit missiles in flight.

In remarks at Georgetown Law School on Jan. 21, Petraeus said the U.S. now has eight Patriot missile batteries stationed in the Gulf region — two each in four countries. He did not name the countries, but Kuwait has long been known to have Patriots on its territory.

A military official said Saturday that the three other countries are the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain — which also hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters — and Qatar, home to a modernized U.S. air operations center that has played a key role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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US upgrades defense of Persian Gulf allies