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U.S. bomber flight meant as a message to Iran amid threat to Saudi infrastructure

The flight of two U.S. B-52 bombers over the Middle East announced on Thursday was a show-of-force message to Iran as American and Saudi officials continued to monitor an imminent threat to Saudi Arabia, according to a senior Defense Department official.

Officials believe Tehran is planning an attack on the Kingdom, likely on energy infrastructure, the official said.

American and Saudi officials are also monitoring an increased threat from Iran to Iraq, where the U.S. has thousands of troops and personnel spread across a number of military bases, said a second DoD official. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

Iran-linked militia groups frequently target U.S. and partner forces in both Iraq and Syria, most recently in an August skirmish that prompted retaliatory U.S. airstrikes. 

Iranian officials believe Saudi Arabia is helping anti-government protesters who are fomenting unrest across the country, and that may be the motive for the threat, the first DoD official said. The protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by the morality police for allegedly flouting Iran’s strict dress code for women.

“It should be no surprise to us that there is some part of the Iranian apparatus that thinks now is a great time to launch more attacks on the region,” said the second DoD official. “That is the playbook of this regime.”

The threat to Saudi Arabia and Iraq led the U.S. and Saudi militaries to raise their alert levels last week, both officials said. The two militaries have shortened the response time of the Patriot missile defense batteries stationed in the region and warned bases of the threat. They may also move fighter jets to new locations.

“We are tracking the threat reporting, we are really concerned about it,” said the second DoD official.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that the U.S. and Saudi militaries had raised alert levels based on threats to Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The U.S. is also concerned by Iran’s other moves in the region, including transferring drones to Russia for use against Ukrainian civilians and agreeing to supply ballistic missiles, the first official said.

The announcement of the bomber flight came just hours after reported Israeli airstrikes struck a convoy carrying Iranian weapons along the Iraqi-Syria border.

“This Bomber Task Force mission demonstrates our commitment to regional security and the collective capabilities of our military partners in the region,” Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, head of Central Command, said in a statement announcing the bomber flight. “CENTCOM has the ability to very quickly put a significant amount of combat power in the air alongside our partners. We can do the same on the ground and at sea to meet any challenge decisively.”

During the mission, two bombers from the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., flew with aircraft from 13 partner nations, the statement said.

Later, Central Command also announced that Kurilla had held “meaningful discussions” with leaders from “all partnered militaries in the Middle East,” including the chiefs of defense from Bahrain, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others.

“The Iranians have demonstrated that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. They can mobilize an extensive internal repression apparatus to deal with the protests and they can continue to foment instability abroad,” the second DoD official said.

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