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Mattis tries to downplay carrier confusion

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/20/2017 Tom Vanden Brook
USS Carl Vinson © MC3 BRENTON POYSER, AFP/Getty Images USS Carl Vinson

RIYADH — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday sought to squelch confusion surrounding the whereabouts of the USS Vinson — the aircraft carrier the Pentagon and White House had mistakenly stated was steaming toward North Korea — by labeling it an effort to be forthcoming that went awry.

The White House and Pentagon had sent clear signals that the Vinson was steaming toward North Korea in the days leading up to its unsuccessful test of a missile on Saturday. President Trump even boasted that he was sending an “armada” to the waters off North Korea when, at the time, the ship was heading in the opposite direction.

Mattis, speaking to reporters in Riyadh, said the Vinson will make its way toward the Korean peninsula, as promised, but just not as soon as most had expected.

“We don’t generally give out ships’ schedules in advance, but I didn’t want to play a game either and say we were not changing a schedule when in fact we had,” Mattis said.  “We’re doing exactly what we said we were going to do. She will be on her way. I’ll determine when she gets there, and where she actually operates. But the Vinson is going to be part of our ensuring that we stand by our allies in the Northwest Pacific.”

The confusion began April 8, Adm. Harry Harris, who commands Pacific Command, said he’d ordered the Vinson and three ships accompanying it, to steam toward Korea. Mattis echoed that two days later, saying the Vinson “was on her way up there,” and the White House amplified it.

But as of Sunday, a day after the failed missile test, the Vinson was still thousands of miles south after conducting exercises with the Australian navy.

The hide-and-seek game with the Vinson ended when the Navy posted a photo of the Vinson and accompanying ships sailing near Indonesia on Friday. Defense News first reported on the Vinson’s southern exposure.

Earlier Wednesday, Mattis met with the Saudi defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The civil war in neighboring Yemen was a key topic in Mattis’ two days of talks here with Saudi officials, including King Salman.

Forces loyal to the Yemeni government, which has U.S. and Saudi support, have been fighting Houthi rebels. The rebels have support from Iran, which funnels weaponry to them. Saudi and an Arab-nation coalition have been bombing the rebels in a campaign that has been criticized by human rights groups for killing civilians.

Iran causing trouble

Mattis laid blame for the worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen squarely on Iran, which he said had sewn instability throughout the Middle East.

“Everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran,” Mattis said.

In Yemen, the United States is pushing for peace talks brokered by the United Nations, Mattis said.

Yemen’s deteriorating security situation has drawn increasing attention from the U.S. military. Last month, U.S. warplanes conducted 20 airstrikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group with designs on American and western targets. Late in January, a U.S. special operations raid against the militants resulted in the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting with Mattis and his defense counterpart was Dina Powell, Trump’s deputy national security adviser for strategy. Speaking in Arabic, she revealed Trump’s call sign for Mattis: “favorite of the president,” according to a pool report.

Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the military, and former and current brass feature prominently in his national security team: Mattis, and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, are both retired Marine generals, and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is his national security adviser.

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