After confrontation with Iran, US weighs wider role in the Gulf. Pentagon considers using Coast Guard vessels for patrols

A week after their navies clashed in the Gulf, the United States and Iran are reevaluating their military strategies in the waterway. While the US considers expanding its protection of Gulf shipping, Iran is struggling to compensate for the damage to two of its most important warships.

Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci said yesterday the United States is deciding whether to shore up its Persian Gulf fleet with Coast Guard ships.

Adm. William Crowe Jr., chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said Coast Guard patrol boats would be ``particularly appropriate'' for Gulf operations.

Admiral Crowe, the nation's top military official, said the vessels would be ideal for assisting warships in the escort of merchant ships, watching sea lanes to prevent mine-laying, and guarding offshore installations from attacks by small craft.

The Coast Guard is eager to assume a role in the Gulf operations, US officials told the New York Times. Coast Guard vessels operated along shores and inland waterways during the Vietnam war, but have been used mainly for domestic activities since then.

The idea of using Coast Guard vessels had been proposed last October but was rejected by then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

US officials yesterday also said no decision had been to give US warships more leeway in protecting Gulf shipping.

Administration sources said last week that the White House was seeking congressional support for a plan to allow US warships to aid neutral vessels under attack.

The US now protects only US-flag ships, including 11 re-registered Kuwaiti tankers. The current ``rules of engagement'' allow US warships to provide humanitarian aid to non-US flag vessels in distress. They can not intervene against the attackers.

US Navy officers in the Gulf said they supported broader engagement rules, because they were frustrated by their inability to stop Iranian gunboat attacks.

``It's like being a world-class athlete who's always ready for the event but never gets to participate,'' Cmdr. Paul X. Rinn, skipper of the US frigate, Samuel B. Roberts, said recently.

The sweeping policy change could encounter strong objections in Congress. Many lawmakers have opposed any step that could draw the US into more confrontation with Iran.

Last Monday's naval confrontation left Iran struggling to piece together a makeshift force, Gulf-based sources say.

Sources say Iran's naval commanders now have two priorities: to reestablish warship patrols in the Strait of Hormuz and to set up a new ``command platform'' at sea to help coordinate attacks on neutral shipping by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

The guards, who are not part of Iran's regular Navy, were back in action yesterday for the first time in five days, raking a small tanker with machine-gun fire. A Saudi-owned, Liberian-flag vessel was damaged slightly.

The two frigates damaged last week formed the backbone of the Iranian Navy and carried out a dual role in the Strait of Hormuz, stopping and checking neutral shipping for weapons destined for Iraq and building up a comprehensive intelligence network on merchant vessels entering and leaving the Gulf.

Iran's commanders now have several options to get some kind of naval force into action again, sources said:

Speed up weapons refits on the two remaining frigates, thought to be laid up in the naval port of Bandar Abbas.

Draft into a more active role two World War II-era destroyers bought by the Shah's government from the US.

Draw more heavily on aerial surveillance, perhaps converting transport aircraft to take over part of the frigates' coordinating command role.

Pro-Iranian Muslim kidnappers yesterday said they would kill two American hostages in Lebanon if the US again attacked Iranian targets in the Persian Gulf.

``The American attacks in the Gulf will not pass without punishment,'' said a statement by the Revolutionary Justice Organization, which holds Joseph James Cicippio and Edward Austin Tracy.

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