Wednesday, May 23, 2007

U.S. warships enter Gulf in show of force

Stennis
The US Navy has confirmed that the USS John C. Stennis and USS Nimitz aircraft carriers and their strike groups have entered Gulf waters to support troops in Iraq and conduct training exercises.(AFP/US Navy/Paul Perkins)

By Mohammed Abbas
May 23, 2007

ABOARD USS JOHN C. STENNIS (Reuters) — Nine U.S. warships carrying 17,000 personnel entered the Gulf on Wednesday in a show of force off Iran’s coast that navy officials said was the largest daytime assembly of ships since the 2003 Iraq war.

U.S. Navy officials said Iran had not been notified of plans to sail the ships, which include two aircraft carriers, through the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow channel in international waters off Iran’s coast and a major artery for global oil shipments.

Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn, who is leading the group, said the ships would conduct exercises as part of a long-planned effort to reassure regional allies of U.S. commitment to Gulf security.

“There’s always the threat of any state or non state actor that might decide to close one of the international straits, and the biggest one is the Straits of Hormuz,” he told reporters on board the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier.

“What is special about this is that you have two strike groups. Everybody will see us because it is in daylight.”

Most U.S. ships pass through the straits at night so as not to attract attention, and rarely move in such large numbers.

Navy officials said the decision to send a second aircraft carrier was made at the last minute, without giving a reason.

The group of ships, carrying about 140 aircraft scheduled to participate in the exercises that will take place over the next few weeks, crossed at roughly 0355 GMT.

Tension between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and Iraq has raised regional fears of a possible military confrontation that could hit Gulf economies and threaten vital oil exports.

SHOW OF FORCE

On the way to the straits, a public announcement called on crew to witness “some of the most powerful ships in the world”, whose tight formation against a backdrop of the setting sun created a dramatic image of American naval might.

The move comes less than two weeks after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking aboard the Stennis during a tour of the Gulf, said the United States would stand with others to prevent Iran gaining nuclear weapons and “dominating the region”.

On a visit to Abu Dhabi a few days later, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened “severe” retaliation if the United States attacked his country, which is locked in a standoff with the United States over its nuclear programme.

He also urged Gulf countries to “get rid of” foreign forces, blaming them for insecurity in the region.

The United States accuses Iran of trying to produce nuclear weapons, and has sought tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran. Iran says its nuclear ambitions are for energy purposes only.

U.S. and Iranian ambassadors are due to meet on Monday in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq, where the United States has accused Iran of fomenting violence by backing Shi’ite militia there, and of providing weapons and the technology for roadside bombs. Iran has denied the accusations.

Last month, the U.S. Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain conducted its biggest crisis response drill and in March, the U.S. navy conducted its biggest war drills in the Gulf since 2003.

This time the drills will involve air defence exercises and boarding other ships posing as suspect vessels, navy officials said. The vessels will also drop off 2,200 marines in Kuwait to take part in unspecified natural disaster exercises, they said.

“If the Straits of Hormuz were to be closed or there were to be some conflict there, the shipping rates would go sky high,” Quinn said.

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