By Arshad Mohammed and Kanishka Singh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States sees the prospect of a significant escalation in attacks on its troops in the Middle East and of Iran seeking to widen the Israel-Hamas war, the top U.S. diplomat and defense officials said on Sunday.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the United States did not want to see the conflict spread and that recent U.S. deployments to the region were designed to prevent this.
Blinken told NBC News that after the release of two U.S. citizens on Friday the United States hoped for more hostages to be freed by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and killed about 1,400 people.
Israel has since retaliated with deadly air strikes on Gaza, a 45 km-long (25-mile) enclave home to 2.3 million people that has been ruled since 2006 by Hamas. Israel's air strikes have killed over 4,700 people, Palestinian officials say.
"We're concerned about potential escalation. In fact, what we're seeing … is the prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region," Austin told ABC's "This Week" program. "If any group or any country is looking to widen this conflict ... our advice is: don't."
The United States has sent significant naval power to the Middle East in recent weeks, including two aircraft carriers, their support ships and about 2,000 Marines.
On Saturday, the Pentagon said it will send a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and additional Patriot air defense missile system battalions to the region in response to recent attacks.
Last week a U.S. warship shot down more than a dozen drones and four cruise missiles fired by Iranian-backed Houthis from Yemen. Drones and rockets also targeted two bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq.
The United States has 2,500 troops in Iraq, and 900 more in neighboring Syria, on a mission to advise and assist local forces to combat Islamic State, which in 2014 seized swathes of both countries.
Blinken and Austin both spoke of the need to find a longer-term solution for Gaza, which Israel occupied in a 1967 Middle East war.
Israel has amassed tanks and troops near the fenced border around Gaza for a planned ground invasion aiming to annihilate Hamas, after several inconclusive wars dating to its seizure of power there in 2007, after Israel ended a 38-year occupation.
It is not clear what may be Israel's endgame for Gaza.
Blinken said there needed to be a way to ensure Hamas could not again conduct an attack like its rampage on southern Israeli communities on Oct. 7, in which it took about 200 hostages, but one that did not entail Israel resuming governance of Gaza.
"They're different ideas out there about what could follow. But all of that I think needs to be worked and it's something that needs to be worked even as Israel is dealing with the current threat," he added.
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Andrea Ricci)