Jeff Seldin and Michael Bowman contributed to this report.?
PENTAGON / WHITE HOUSE — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made an unscheduled visit to Iraq, amid growing tensions with Iran after intelligence reports indicated that Iran moved short-range ballistic missiles by boat in waters off its shores.
The move, first reported by CNN, was one of several clues that Iran might be considering or preparing to attack U.S. forces in the region, a government official told AP.
The official told the news agency that they were not sure whether the boats with missiles represented a new military capability or were only being moved to new locations.
Pompeo on Tuesday canceled a scheduled trip to Germany and made an unannounced visit to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih to share concerns about the increasing Iranian activity.
"We don't want anyone interfering in their country, certainly not by attacking another nation inside of Iraq," Pompeo told reporters traveling with him from Iraq to Britain.
He said the threats against American interests were "imminent."
"That is, they were attacks that were going to happen fairly soon," Pompeo said. "We've taken every action we can to deter them."
U.S. officials also are speeding the arrival of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, and its strike group from European waters to the Arabian Sea, and deploying a B-52 bomber task force in response to the potential Iranian threat.
"What you see is us getting in the right posture for that dynamic environment," Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.
On Monday, Pompeo said, "We have continued to see activity that leads us to believe that there's escalation that may be taking place, and so we're taking all the appropriate actions, both from a security perspective as well as our ability to make sure the president has a wide range of options in the event that something should actually take place."
The concerns expressed by Pompeo and U.S. defense officials contrast with U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) assessment just over a month ago.
Despite Iran's "significant capability" in Syria and the region, CENTCOM officials said there were no indications Tehran was setting its sights on U.S. forces.
"Iran's priority is to defeat ISIS, which it sees as an existential threat," the Defense Department's Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve said, summarizing CENTCOM's March 26 assessment in a report issued Tuesday.
"They are not displaying the intent to attack U.S. forces," the report added, warning, "this calculus could change if Iran perceives a U.S. desire to ramp up anti-Iranian activities in a post-ISIS environment," using an acronym for the militant group.
Some former U.S. intelligence and security officials worry, however, that recent rhetoric from the White House combined with its ongoing "maximum pressure" campaign, has done just that.
New America Foundation Fellow Ned Price told VOA an unusual and aggressive Sunday evening statement issued in the name of the U.S. national security adviser John Bolton — in which he warned the U.S. is "fully prepared to respond to any attack" — makes it seem like the U.S. is "intent on driving the Iranians into a corner."
"The concern with Bolton's threat — coming in the midst of a series of escalations from the Trump administration — underscores the concern that the administration is trying to goad the Iranians into an unwise and ill-considered reaction," said Price, a former spokesman for the Obama-era National Security Council.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz echoed that sentiment Tuesday on Capitol Hill, telling VOA, "John Bolton's history lends itself to the most worrisome analysis of this situation."
However, Schatz, a Democrat, remained confident the United States and Iran were "a long way from anything kinetic [violent], and hopefully we will remain a long way from anything kinetic."
The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group includes fighter jets, helicopters, destroyers and more than 6,000 sailors. The group left a U.S. port in the state of Virginia in early April.
The Trump administration has been working to apply what it calls a "maximum pressure campaign" against Iran to try to get the country to change its behavior, including its sponsorship of terror groups and what the White House alleges is a ballistic missile program that threatens the United States.
In response to last month's U.S. designation of a key part of Iran's military (IRGC) as a terrorist group, Iran called the United States a state sponsor of terrorism and said U.S. forces in the Middle East are terror groups.