Pentagon chief stresses Middle East stability in calls with counterparts

FILE PHOTO: Defense Secretary Austin hold a press conference at the Pentagon, in Washington
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By Idrees Ali and Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held calls on Monday with counterparts in the Middle East and Europe, expressing support for Israel after attacks from Iran but also stressing regional stability to prevent conflict from spreading, the Pentagon said.

Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles on Saturday in a retaliatory strike after a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria. Most of the drones and missiles were downed before reaching Israeli territory.

The U.S. was not informed by Iran in advance about its attack on Israel and Washington did not seek a conflict with Tehran, the Pentagon said.

Israel faced pressure from allies to show restraint and avoid an escalation of regional conflict as it considered how to respond to Iran's barrage. Israel's military chief of staff said the country would respond to the Iranian attack.

Austin held separate calls on Monday with Bahrain's crown prince and prime minister, Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa as well as Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah. In those calls, he condemned Iran's attacks and said Washington did not seek an escalation of the conflict, according to the Pentagon.

Austin told his counterparts that "while the United States does not seek escalation, we will continue to defend Israel and U.S. personnel," the Pentagon said. In the call with Gallant, according to the Pentagon, he expressed support for Israel's defense and "reaffirmed the strategic goal of regional stability."

"Whether or not Israel decides to retaliate against Iran is something for Israel to decide," a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters earlier on Monday.

The Israel-Iran tensions have heightened concerns that violence rooted in the Gaza war is spreading further in the region. Since the start of the war in Gaza on Oct. 7, clashes have erupted between Israel and Iran-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Kanishka Singh; Editing by Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast.)