US naval forces continue to grow in Mideast region

The United States Navy is once again moving its warships closer to trouble spots in the Middle East. But as a carrier battle group moves toward strife-torn Lebanon and a group of destroyers edges north in the Persian Gulf toward Iran, US analysts say they do not expect imminent military action. Gunboat diplomacy, they say, has simply become standard procedure for the US in the region.

``It's one of the very few things we can do'' to influence events in the nations in question, says Robert Neumann, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now a fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Movement in recent days of the USS Nimitz to the eastern Mediterranean has led to speculation in Washington that a military move to rescue US hostages might be imminent, or that the US might strike a blow against terrorists in retaliation for the latest kidnappings of three American professors and an Indian colleague taken last month.

In addition to the Nimitz, the USS Kennedy was on station further west in the Mediterranean. The Pentagon said yesterday a second Marine amphibious force had left Rota, Spain, bringing to 3,800 the number of Marines deployed at sea in the Mediterranean.

Administration officials denied they had specific military plans pertaining to Lebanon and said the ship movements were simply to keep the President's options open. Striking terrorists in Beirut would be difficult, officials say, because terrorist strongholds are located in a dense civilian population.

In the Persian Gulf, three destroyers from the US Middle East Force were reported steaming north toward Kuwait in a show of support for US allies in the region. As of this writing the Navy would not confirm particular ship positions, saying only that the six-combatant force was in the Gulf region.

A Pentagon spokesman called the Persian Gulf deployment routine, but added that the US must be prepared to stand up for its interests in the region. In the wake of the latest Iranian offensive against Iraq, US allies such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have become nervous that they might be Iran's next targets.

``Moving ships is a relatively cheap way of reassuring your friends,'' says William Quandt, a Brookings Institution foreign policy fellow.

Mr. Quandt points out that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia traditionally have preferred that the US not be too obvious about showing its friendship, because being known as a US ally can make life difficult when dealing with other Middle East nations. But the more nervous these two countries get about Iran, the more they shed their hesitance concerning American flag-waving.

With Iranian soldiers now spilling into Iraqi territory, ``the danger has never been so apparent,'' says Quandt.

There is a question, however, as to how reassured a Kuwaiti leader would be by the presence of the Navy's Middle East Force. While its symbolic presence is important, as a practical matter three destroyers in the constricted and shallow Gulf are of questionable military use.

``The position is untenable. In the Persian Gulf you can't fight against land-based aircraft. They can be over you before you know it,'' says retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, a former Sixth Fleet commander who is now deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a private Pentagon watchdog group.

The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk has left its Philippines port and was reportedly headed for the Persian Gulf area. But Pentagon officials said it would not enter the Gulf itself.

Admiral Carroll says the Navy simply wouldn't consider taking a carrier into the Gulf. Waters there are so shallow that when a ``flattop'' got up to speed to launch aircraft it could become unmanageable, as its wake bounced off the bottom and came back up to slap the bottom of the ship. ``It would be like running full speed down a pot-holed dirt road,'' Carroll said.

In any case, Iran in recent days has probably been increasingly preoccupied with its own problems and has had less time to make threatening moves toward Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon said Tuesday that it appears Iraq has regained the initiative in the fight for the Iraqi port of Basra.

Defense Department spokesman Robert Sims said Iraq had brought in more infantry and armored vehicles and had dislodged forces from positions near the Shatt al Arab waterway.

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