Pompeo takes Iran pressure campaign to Morocco as US considers Middle East troop boost

Pentagon officials said between 5,000 and 7,000 additional troops could head to the region

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Rabat, Morocco December 5, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer  NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

The US and Morocco discussed efforts to isolate Iran, officials said, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to the country on Thursday.

Mr Pompeo had been due to have an audience with King Mohammed VI but the meeting was dropped, apparently after he extended a visit to Lisbon to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Mr Pompeo, the highest-ranking US official to visit Morocco since the election of President Donald Trump, said he saw progress on his half-day visit.

"We have a great relationship between our two countries," he said. "We make our people safer in each of our two countries."

Mr Pompeo met the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, Nasser Bourita, to discuss the threat posed by Iran's attempts to "broaden its regional influence", Mr Bourita said.

They also discussed the conflict in Libya and unrest across the Sahel region.

Morocco and the US have tense relations with Iran since the 1979 revolution toppled the pro-western shah, who was close to the royal family in Rabat.

Meanwhile, the US said it was considering sending more troops to counter Iran, with an official saying up to 7,000 could head to the region.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 31, 2019 US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks to the press at the Pentagon in Washington,DC. The US defense secretary on November 25, 2019 defended the decision to sack his navy secretary, saying he went behind his back to make a deal with the White House over a convicted Navy SEAL's future. Mark Esper told reporters that Richard Spencer, the Navy's top civilian, admitted to him that he had gone around Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley."We were completely caught off guard by this information, and realized that it undermined everything we have been discussing with the president."
 / AFP / Olivier Douliery

Testifying before Congress, John Rood, the undersecretary of defence for policy, said that the US was "observing Iran's behaviour with concern".

"We're continuing to look at that threat picture and have the ability to dynamically adjust our force posture," Mr Rood told the Senate armed services committee.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper was considering plans to move between 5,000 and 7,000 troops to the Middle East to protect US interests, a US official told AFP.

Mr Rood denied a report by The Wall Street Journal that the US was considering sending 14,000 more troops, equal to the number sent over the past six months.

Mr Esper also denied the 14,000 figure to Senator Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the committee, Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said.

Tension between Iran and the US have risen sharply since Mr Trump last year pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal and imposed sanctions, including on its oil exports.

In September, the US said Iran was responsible for attacks on the major Abqaiq oil processing centre in Saudi Arabia.

America has also been alarmed by a rise in attacks on bases in Iraq, where protests triggered by a poor economy have also aimed at Iran's regime and its influence in its neighbour.

"We're lucky no one has been killed. There is a spike in rocket attacks," another US official said.

"It's clearly not ISIS. Everything is going in the right direction and it's the right range [for Iran]."

Five rockets hit Al Asad Air Base on Tuesday, just four days after US Vice President Mike Pence visited US troops there.

And on Thursday, two mortar shells landed inside Iraq’s Balad air base, which hosts US forces and contractors.

No casualties were reported from the attack on the base, which is about 80 kilometres north of Baghdad.

Iran denied involvement in the September attack on Saudi oil installations, which was claimed by Yemen's Tehran-backed Houthi rebels.

The heightened tension comes as Iran has faced major protests, set off by a sharp rise in gas prices.