MEXICO CITY, April 30, 2008 – The movement of a second aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf this week doesn’t signal an escalation of the U.S. naval presence — but could serve as a “reminder” of it to countries in the region, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here last night. Gates did not specifically name Iran when responding to a reporter’s question about the arrival this week of USS Abraham Lincoln in the Gulf.

“The size of our naval presence in the Gulf rises and falls constantly,” he said. “This deployment has been planned for a long time. I don’t think we will have two carriers there for a protracted period of time. So I don’t see it as an escalation. I think it could be seen, though, as a reminder.”

Pressed by another reporter, Gates denied that heightened Defense Department criticism of Iran means it’s laying the foundation for a military strike.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week that recently manufactured Iranian weapons found in and around Basra, Iraq, prove that Iran continues meddling in Iraq in ways that hamper progress and put U.S. and Iraqi lives at risk.

Mullen said at an April 25 Pentagon news conference that he’s “increasingly concerned about Iran’s activity, not just in Iraq, but throughout the region.

“I believe recent events, especially the Basra operation, have revealed just how much and just how far Iran is reaching into Iraq to foment instability,” he said.

Mullen said he believes diplomatic, financial and international pressure is the best way to pressure Iran to reverse course. But “we are not taking any military elements off the table,” he said.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq who is in line for the top U.S. Central Command job, is preparing a briefing that details Iran’s activities. That report is expected in the next couple of weeks.

Gates told reporters last night that he does not believe there’s been any significant increase in Iranian support for the Taliban and others opposing the government in Afghanistan. “There is, as best as I can tell, a continuing flow, but I would still characterize it as relatively modest,” he said.

The nature of the Taliban threat has changed, he said. Large-scale firefights against Afghan and coalition forces have evolved into terrorist acts, many using improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. Gates noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped such an attack on his life earlier this week when Taliban gunmen attacked a military parade in Kabul.

The secretary said he views the latest tactics as a sign that the Taliban recognizes the strength and firepower of the coalition forces they’re up against in Afghanistan. “They are changing their tactics, and we will have to clearly continue to adapt our tactics as well,” he said.

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