US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin did not say how many US troops would be added to those already in the region. Image Credit: AFP

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon has moved to step up US military readiness in the Middle East in response to what it said were “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces” across the region.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin ordered the activation of air defence systems and notified additional forces that they may be deployed soon.

Austin did not say how many US troops would be added to those already in the region.

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The Pentagon’s moves came after what Austin described in a statement as “detailed discussions” with President Joe Biden.

“These steps will bolster regional deterrence efforts, increase force protection for US forces in the region, and assist in the defence of Israel,” Austin said.

The steps continued the Biden administration’s response since Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip stormed Israel on October 7, taking more than 200 hostages and killing at least 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials.

Israel has since vowed to destroy Hamas, and says around 1,500 of the group’s fighters were killed in clashes before its army regained control of the area initially under attack.

Austin said he had activated deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) battery and additional Patriot battalions “throughout the region.”

“Finally, I have placed an additional number of forces on prepare to deploy orders as part of prudent contingency planning, to increase their readiness and ability to quickly respond as required,” Austin said.

Tensions are rising along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon after the Israeli army traded fire with the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah amid fears of a new front opening as Israel battles Hamas.

US troops stationed at two bases in Iraq were targeted with rocket attacks Friday that caused no casualties.

Since Wednesday, three Iraqi bases used by US-led coalition troops have been targeted in five separate attacks - Ain Al Assad, the Al Harir base in northern Iraq and a military camp near Baghdad airport.

Gazans warned again to move south

Israel’s military said Saturday it would intensify strikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza ahead of a planned ground invasion.

“We are going to go into the Gaza Strip... to destroy Hamas operatives and Hamas infrastructure,” Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi told troops on Saturday.

Elaborating on Israel’s strategy in remarks to Fox TV on Sunday, military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said it was “to have a weakened, tired and dislocated Hamas in preparation for our next stage of military operations.” “Our working assumption,” he said, “is that Hamas has prepared the battlefield, that there are various dimensions of warfare ready for us - specifically tunnels - and that Hamas, at least in the first and the intermediate stages, will fight and will inflict heavy casualties on (Israeli forces).” Hamas’ armed wing said it had fired rockets at Tel Aviv on Sunday. There was no immediate word of damage or casualties.

With Israel keeping up daily bombardments that laid waste to swathes of the densely populated enclave, Palestinians said they received renewed Israeli military warnings to move from Gaza’s north to the south to avoid the deadliest theatre of the war.

They said military leaflets dropped on the narrow territory, just 45km (28 miles) long, contained the added warning that they could be identified as sympathisers with a “terrorist organisation” if they stayed put.

“For your own safety, move southward. We will continue to attack in the area of Gaza City and increase attacks,” Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Hagari said on Saturday.

Gazans say making the journey south remains highly risky amid air strikes and that southern areas have also been bombed.

Many families who left Gaza to the south said they had lost relatives during Israeli air strikes in the south.