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A file photo shows a B-52 bomber and two F-15 fighter jets flying over in New Orleans in May 2020. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Two U.S. B-52 bombers flew a strategic mission over the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, the second mission of its kind this month, AP reports.

Why it matters: The flights are meant as a show of force to deter Iran from attacking American or allied targets in the Middle East amid signals that the country may be planning attacks against U.S. allied targets in neighboring Iraq or elsewhere in the region, per AP.

What they're saying: The head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie said the mission was a defensive move.

  • “The United States continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to deter any potential adversary, and make clear that we are ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests,” said Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of Central Command, said, according to AP.
  • “We do not seek conflict, but no one should underestimate our ability to defend our forces or to act decisively in response to any attack.”

The big picture: The U.S. has considered closing its embassy in Baghdad after a recent series of rocket attacks on Iraq's Green Zone that the U.S. blames on Iranian-backed militias.

  • On Dec. 23, President Trump tweeted, "Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over."
  • Iran has denied any involvement in the recent attacks.

The two countries are also approaching the Jan. 3 anniversary of the U.S. killing of top Iranian military commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

  • There is growing concern in the Trump administration that Iran plans to avenge the killing of Soleimani, according to AP.
  • “Trump will bear full responsibility for any adventurism on his way out,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted last week.

Go deeper: U.S. considering closing Iraqi embassy after rocket attack

Go deeper

Senate confirms retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary

Photo: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

The Senate voted 93-2 on Friday to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) were the sole "no" votes.

Why it matters: Austin is the first Black American to lead the Pentagon and President Biden's second Cabinet nominee to be confirmed.

Former Defense Secretary Esper sues Pentagon over book

Former President Trump and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House in 2020. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper filed a lawsuit Sunday against the Defense Department, accusing the Pentagon of "censoring" his First Amendment rights by redacting parts of his upcoming book on the Trump administration.

The big picture: Esper, who served as defense secretary from July 2019 until he was fired by then-President Trump in November last year, alleges in the suit that "significant text" is "being improperly withheld from publication" of the manuscript "under the guise of classification."

WHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries

Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The World Health Organization called on countries Sunday to not impose travel bans on southern African nations amid concerns over the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The U.S. and countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific announced travel restrictions in response to Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa. It's since spread to several European countries, Canada, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong. The WHO noted in a statement that only two southern African nations have detected the new variant.

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