US resolve stays high in Gulf. Mission unchanged though naval force is reduced

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The withdrawal of four United States warships from the Gulf region is a routine adjustment that doesn't undercut US resolve to protect its commercial shipping here. That is the official US line, and one the Arab states of the Gulf seem to accept. Still, Iran is using the force reduction for propaganda purposes, suggesting on Radio Tehran that the US is retreating from the Gulf. ``After the defeat of its militaristic policy in the Persian Gulf, Washington is looking for a face-saving way to get out of this in-ternational waterway,'' Radio Tehran proclaimed Wednesday.

Last month's visit to the region by US Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci was in part designed to prevent any US ``friends'' on the Arab side of the Gulf from coming to such conclusions.

But what does concern the Saudis and Kuwaitis is the unresolved issue of whether US forces will eventually also protect neutral commercial ships under threat of unlawful attack in the Gulf's international waters - as France has announced it is prepared to do. The other naval powers in the region - including the US - have so far been cool to the idea, stressing that their missions are strictly limited to protecting only ships flying their own flag.

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Just by their presence, the warships in the Gulf serve as a calming and protecting influence, which benefits all shipping in the vicinity. But such spillover protection hasn't prevented the Iranians from stepping up attacks this year against unescorted ships trading with Kuwaiti and Saudi ports.

The Iranians are not expected to gain tactical advantages as a result of the withdrawal of the four US warships.

As described by US Defense Department officials, the redeployment will permit the US Navy to lower marginally its high profile in the tense region. Also, the move will reduce the cost - $20 million per month by some estimates - of maintaining the large naval task force.

With the pullout last weekend of the US battleship Iowa and two escort ships - a cruiser and a destroyer - and later this month the helicopter carrier Okinawa, the US naval force will stand at 24 ships, down from more than 40 vessels last fall. The US task force will remain, nonetheless, the most significant and potent concentration of military power in the region.

US officials stress that the remaining naval ships will be more than enough to continue protecting Kuwaiti tankers re-registered last year under the US flag and the small number of other US-registered ships that call in Gulf ports. They note that while the threat of mines in Gulf waters has diminished, US and Western European mine hunters stand prepared to resume operations if needed.

Along with the announcement of the US force reduction, the US has announced its intention to iron out an arrangement with Iraq to prevent any repeats of last weekend's close call when an Iraqi bomber fired two anti-ship missiles in the vicinity of a large US-escorted convoy of tankers in the southern Gulf.

The missiles are said to have flown within eight miles of a US warship at the rear of the convoy before exploding on the horizon. The warship's crew went to battle stations in preparation to shoot down the incoming missile, if necessary.

The incident was the closest encounter between an Iraqi pilot and a US convoy since the accidental May 17 Iraqi missile attack on the US frigate Stark in the central Gulf. Thirty-seven US servicemen died in that attack.

A US military team is expected to visit Baghdad later this week to press home to the Iraqi regime the need for greater care by its fighter pilots in identifying potential targets for missile attacks.

Some Iraqi pilots are said by military analysts to anxiously fire their missiles at any large ``blip'' on their cockpit radar screens, simply assuming the blip to be an Iranian tanker or other war target.

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