Washington, May 24 (AP/UNB) — The U.S. will bolster its military presence in the Middle East with an additional 1,500 troops, President Donald Trump said Friday amid heightened tensions with Iran.
Trump said the troops would have a "mostly protective" role as part of a build-up that began this month in response to what the U.S said was a threat from Iran without providing details or evidence.
"We are going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective," the president told reporters at the White House before setting off on a trip to Japan. "Some very talented people are going to the Middle East right now and we'll see what happens."
Trump has in recent weeks alternated between tough talk toward Iran and a more conciliatory message, insisting he is open to negotiations with the Islamic Republic. He seemed to downplay the prospect of conflict when he spoke at the White House.
"Right now, I don't think Iran wants to fight and I certainly don't think they want to fight with us," he said.
The administration notified Congress earlier in the day about the troop plans.
The forces would number "roughly" 1,500 and would deploy in the coming weeks, "with their primary responsibilities and activities being defensive in nature," according to a copy of the notification obtained by The Associated Press.
Their mission would include protecting U.S. forces already in the region and ensuring freedom of navigation, the notification said.
Earlier this week, officials said Pentagon planners had outlined proposals that could have sent up to 10,000 military reinforcements to the region. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan later said planners hadn't settled on a figure.
The U.S. has tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East, including at a major Navy base in Bahrain and an Air Force base and operations center in Qatar. There are about 5,200 troops in Iraq and 2,000 in Syria.
Earlier this month, the U.S. sent thousands more into the region around Iran, including an aircraft carrier strike group, four bomber aircraft and fighter jets in response to the unspecified threat.
Tension had been rising with Iran for more than a year. The Trump administration withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and world powers and reinstated American sanctions that have badly damaged the Iranian economy.
The president has argued that the nuclear deal failed to sufficiently curb Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons or halt its support for militias throughout the Middle East that the U.S. argues destabilize the region.
Washington, May 24 (AP/UNB) — The Trump administration is considering an emergency declaration that would allow it to make an arms shipment to Saudi Arabia without the approval of Congress, two U.S. officials and lawmakers opposed to the move said Thursday.
The officials say a decision on invoking a national security waiver in the Arms Export Control Act to bypass congressional review of proposed sales to the Saudis could be made as early as Friday. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It was not immediately clear what sales would be covered by the possible waiver, which could allow previously blocked weapons transfers to move forward or be applied to new ones. A sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia has been on hold for over a year.
Congressional opposition to U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia has been growing and lawmakers have blocked about $2 billion in arms sales to the kingdom for more than a year due to concerns over civilian casualties in the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen and outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October by Saudi agents.
President Donald Trump last month vetoed legislation that would have ended U.S. military assistance for the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Iran-backed rebels but administration officials have complained that sales remain blocked. The law requires Congress to be notified of potential arms sales, giving the body the opportunity to block the sale. But the law also allows the president to waive that review process by declaring an emergency that requires the sale be made "in the national security interests of the United States."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who would authorize the waiver, has been considering the step for months, according to the officials. But the matter has become more pressing in recent weeks due to what the administration says are heightened threats from Iran and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities by Yemen's Houthi rebels this week.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, The ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday that he would move to halt any sales that arise from an exemption.
"I will pursue all appropriate legislative and other means to nullify these and any planned ongoing sales should the administration move forward in this manner," he said in a statement. "The Congressional review process exists so that the Senate can ask questions about whether a particular arms sale serves our national interests and supports our values, including human rights and civilian protections."
Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut warned Wednesday that the administration might use the "obscure loophole" to bypass congressional approval.
"Trump knows he would lose a vote on the sale — Congress and the American public object to selling these bombs to the Saudis," Murphy said in a series of tweets on the matter. "If there is an emergency, it's a humanitarian emergency caused by the bombs we sell the Saudis."
There is precedent for using the emergency exemption for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. President Ronald Reagan invoked it in the 1980s and both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush used it for sales before the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq war.
The State Department declined to comment, citing a policy against discussing potential arms sales until Congress is notified
Washington, May 23 (AP/UNB) — The Pentagon on Thursday will present plans to the White House to send up to 10,000 more troops to the Middle East, in a move to beef up defenses against potential Iranian threats, U.S. officials said.
The officials said no final decision has been made yet, and it's not clear if the White House would approve sending all or just some of the requested forces. Officials said the move is not in response to any new threat from Iran, but is aimed at reinforcing security in the region. They said the troops would be defensive forces, and the discussions include additional Patriot missile batteries, more ships and increased efforts to monitor Iran.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans have not been formally announced.
Thursday morning's meeting comes as tensions with Iran continue to simmer, and it wasn't clear if a decision would be made during the session. Any move to deploy more forces to the Middle East would signal a shift for President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly emphasized the need to reduce America's troop presence in the region.
U.S. officials have provided few details about possible Iranian threats, but indicated they initially involved missiles loaded onto small Iranian boats. This week officials said the missiles have been taken off the boats near Iran's shore, but other maritime threats continue.
Sending more troops could also raise questions on Capitol Hill. During back-to-back closed briefings for the House and Senate on Tuesday, defense leaders told congressional officials the U.S. doesn't want to go to war with Iran and wants to de-escalate the situation.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers the U.S. is seeking to deter, not provoke, Iran, even while accusing Tehran of threatening U.S. interests in the Mideast. Shanahan told reporters, "Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation."
Many in Congress are skeptical of the administration's approach to Iran, questioning whether it is responding to significant new Iranian threats or escalating a situation that could lead to war.
CNN first reported that the Pentagon will brief the White House on a plan that could send thousands of additional U.S. troops to the Middle East.
Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to comment, saying, "As a matter of long-standing policy, we are not going to discuss or speculate on potential or alleged future operations or plans."
In early May, the U.S. accelerated the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Mideast and sent four B-52 bomber aircraft to the region. The Pentagon also decided to move a Patriot air-defense missile battery to an undisclosed country in the area.
The Trump administration has evacuated nonessential personnel from Iraq, amid unspecified threats the administration said are linked to Iranian-backed militias in the country.
On Sunday, a rocket was fired into Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, landing less than a mile from the sprawling U.S. Embassy. There were no injuries and no group claimed responsibility, but the rocket was believed to have been fired from east Baghdad — which is home to Iran-backed Shiite militias.
Some Democrats say Trump is responsible for drawing Iran's ire. Last year he abruptly pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated during the Obama administration to prevent Iran from nuclear weapons production, without crafting a coherent strategy for how to combat other Iranian behavior like supporting extremist organizations. He also has reimposed punishing sanctions that have crippled Tehran's economy, and designated Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization in April.
"I have yet to see any exhibited strategy," said Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a former CIA officer. She said she finds many of the administration's recent statements on Iran to be "deeply troubling."
La Jolla, May 23 (AP/UNB) — At first glance, it looks like a branch of kelp, but then an eye moves among its leafy appendages, and ridges of tiny, translucent fins start to flutter, sending the creature gliding through the water like something from a fairy tale.
A Southern California aquarium has built what is believed to be one of the world's largest habitats for the surreal sea dragons, whose native populations off Australia are threatened by pollution, warming oceans and the illegal pet and alternative medicine trades.
The Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego hopes the exhibit, which opened this month, will lead to the leafy sea dragon, the lesser-known cousin of the seahorse, being bred for the first time in captivity.
"It literally just looked like a piece of kelp," said Steven Kowal, 25, who was visiting San Diego from Greensboro, North Carolina, and took time to see the exhibit. "It was crazy to me that it was, like, actually living and swimming around, so that's cool. I've never seen anything like that."
That's a common reaction.
"They look like something out of this world," said Leslee Matsushige, the aquarium's associate curator, who noted the sea dragons' amazing ability to camouflage themselves. "When people see them move, you hear them say, 'What? That's alive? Wow! That's crazy.'"
Scientists like Matsushige hope the creatures' magnetic power will prompt people to read signs next to the tanks that outline ways to protect them and what can be done to make oceans healthier, such as picking up trash and stopping pollutants from going down the drain.
Few aquariums have sea dragons. There are only two types of sea dragons, the leafy and the weedy, each representing its own genus. Both are found only in a small area of temperate waters off the southern and western coasts of Australia.
Little is known about them because their populations are so small and in remote areas.
So far, only the weedy sea dragon, a bony fish that resembles seaweed when floating, has been bred in captivity, and only a handful of times.
The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach was the first in the world to breed the weedy sea dragons in 2001. It also is trying to breed leafy sea dragons.
The Birch Aquarium's 18-foot-long (5.5-meter-long) tank has three leafy sea dragons — two males and one female — and 11 weedy sea dragons. The 5,300-gallon (20,062-liter) tank is a vast space, especially for the smaller leafy sea dragon, which grows to only about 14 inches (36 centimeters) in length. The tank has grassy plants, a sandy bottom and rocks.
Scientists hope the large space will foster breeding. Sea dragons mirror each other in a courtship dance, spiraling upward before the female deposits her eggs onto a patch on the underside of the male's tail. Like seahorses, the male carries the young and gives birth.
"We're already seeing great courtship behaviors, and so we're hopeful we can get some egg transfers really soon," said Jenn Nero Moffatt, director of animal care at the Birch Aquarium.
The exhibit is the latest effort by the aquarium that is a world leader in seahorse propagation.
Sea dragons swim by spinning translucent fins while their tails act as rudders. They have no natural predators, in part because their slender bodies are covered by bony plates.
If both types of sea dragons can be bred, scientists believe that could reduce the number being taken illegally from the wild.
Mount Comfort, May 23 (AP/UNB) — Indiana State Police say a small plane has crashed near Indianapolis, killing two people.
Sgt. John Perrine says the crash happened shortly before 1 p.m. near Indianapolis Regional Airport, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) east of the city. He says the plane crashed shortly after taking off, and the two people who were on board died. Their names haven't been released.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory says a Cessna Citation crashed into a field a half-mile east of the airport.
Cory says FAA investigators were traveling to the site, and the National Transportation Safety Board has been notified.