THE Iraqi attack on a US Navy frigate that left at least 37 Americans dead and many others wounded is a reminder of why many Pentagon officials refer to the current period as an ``era of violent peace.'' The United States, in the Gulf as elsewhere, is not at war. Yet the US cannot be said to be at peace, either, as testified to by the seven-ship Navy task force in the Gulf - stationed there to protect oil shipping from that region to Western industrial nations and Japan. For frigates like the USS Stark, the tactical situation quickly becomes particularly dangerous in such a twilight zone of conflict - where US ships are ostensibly neutral but find themselves caught up against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war.
Surely, this is a moment for compassion and support for the crew of the USS Stark and their families. Washington will have many questions to ask the ship's officers. Whatever was known by the ship's crew, US Air Force planes apparently knew of the Iraqi jets. Was there no communication to the Stark? Why did the Stark not take evasive action before the missile attack, or, alternatively, directly engage the aircraft? Were the frigate's defensive systems operational? Who was on duty on the Stark?
The Navy has now sharpened the rules of engagement for its warships remaining in the Gulf. That is reasonable. But broader concerns need to be addressed - including the role of the US task force in the Gulf and the appropriateness of efforts taken to date to end the Iran-Iraq war.
All appearances, as of this writing, suggest that the Iraqi attack was just what it seemed to be, a terrible mistake, though Congress will want to explore that issue. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has indicated as much in his message to President Reagan. And even for the crew of the Stark, there are mitigating circumstances: The attack took place at night - a time in which there have been relatively few direct attacks on vessels. The frigate, which was on so-called ``picket duty,'' keeping a radar eye on air and sea shipping lanes, was not in a main war zone, such as around Kharg Island, where frequent missile hits take place. Still, attacks on shipping in general have hardly been uncommon, including recent hits on Soviet tankers.
Beyond the missile attack is the larger matter of the American presence in the Gulf. The US has a right to be there; the Stark was in international waters. More important, the US has an obligation to help keep open international shipping lanes. But should the US be carrying this responsibility alone? What about, as Congressman Lee Hamilton asks, greater support from other Western nations also dependent on Middle East oil?
The Stark incident suggests that Washington needs to have better defined rules of engagement for its ships in the Gulf, as well as clearer foreign policy objectives in that region. And the West needs to intensify efforts to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war, lest an inadvertent incident bring into the conflict the great powers themselves.