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Thousands of Marines with 26th MEU end exercise, head to Mediterranean Sea amid rising Middle East tensions

The U.S. has ended a planned exercise with the Moroccan military to send roughly 2,500 Marines into the Mediterranean Sea as tensions between the U.S. and Iran rise, a defense official confirmed on background to Marine Corps Times.

The risk of a new conflict between the U.S. and Iran increases in the fragile region, many experts say, after the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the revered leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force.

The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the amphibious assault ship Bataan, amphibious transport dock New York and the dock landing Ship Oak Hill, canceled its planned participation in Exercise African Sea Lion, the defense official confirmed.

The MEU ― made up of Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, Combat Logistics Battalion 26 and the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365, all based in North Carolina ― will be attached to the U.S. 6th Fleet while it is in the Mediterranean, the official said.

In the days since Iraqi protesters attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and Soleimani was killed, the American military has built up its presence in the Middle East.

That included 100 Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces Crisis Response – Central Command sent to reinforce the embassy, soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment and 4,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division sent to Kuwait.

The defense official was unable to confirm to Marine Corps Times that the 26th MEU would join those units in the Persian Gulf. But the rising security risk elsewhere in the Middle East may mean the flexible Marine unit will remain in the Mediterranean for the time being.

In a speech honoring Soleimani’s death, Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said it was the responsibility of Iran’s allies to respond to the commander’s death, Reuters reported.

“Fair punishment is (aimed at) the American military presence in the region: American military bases, American naval ships, every American officer and soldier in our countries and region,” Reuters reported Nasrallah saying.

The threats from Hezbollah pose a real danger to U.S. diplomatic and military officials throughout the region, especially in Israel ― one of the preferred targets of the Iranian-backed group.

In addition, other U.S. assets in the eastern Mediterranean Sea are well within range of Iranian missiles.

“If the U.S. takes any action after our military response, we will level Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground," FARS reported that Secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council Mohsen Rezayee said.

Prior to 2018 Tel Aviv was the home to the U.S. embassy in Israel and is still where the large U.S. consulate to Israel is located.

If the 26th MEU were to be kept in the Mediterranean instead of being used to augment the thousands of troops already in and around Iraq, it would be available for deterrence, counter strikes against Hezbollah and to reinforce or evacuate any U.S. diplomatic missions that come under attack.

Even if the MEU moves into the Red Sea it would be capable of supporting Israel.

In 2018 a ship with the 26th MEU loitered in the Red Sea as part of an “elevated crisis response posture” as the U.S. moved the official embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Marine Corps Times previously reported.

Military Times overseas and combatant commands reporter Shawn Snow contributed to this report.

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