The tragic attack one year ago on the United States Navy frigate Stark, US officials now say, had the effects of boosting US policy in the Gulf and prompting greater preparedness by its naval forces. At the time, the incident was seen as a hard blow to the US military and policy makers in Washington who were working to reestablish American credibility in the Gulf in the wake of the White House's secret arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.
Speaking at a brief service yesterday at the US Embassy here in memory of the 37 servicemen who died in the May 17, 1987, Iraqi missile attack, Ambassador Sam Zakhem said the incident ``helped usher in a new and very successful [US] policy in the region.''
``It helped us be smarter and more combat ready,'' said Adm. Anthony A. Less, commander of the US Navy's Middle East Task Force.
The comments were made as the situation in the Gulf continues to heat up. Iranian gunboats made two midweek raids in the Strait of Hormuz that follow last weekend's long-range Iraqi bombing raid against five tankers near Iran's Larak Island.
Iran's two attacks, against a Japanese chemical tanker Wednesday and a Norwegian liquefied petroleum gas carrier yesterday, were its first since April 22, when Washington declared a new policy of offering expanded US warship protection for neutral ships under attack in the Gulf.
In both cases, the attacks were conducted when US warships were not in the vicinity.
The timing of the attacks suggests, according to Gulf analysts, that Iran is keen on avoiding a direct confrontation with the US Navy. But it also indicates that Iran is interested in keeping up its attacks on neutral shipping in part as a means of undermining US efforts to project itself as an effective policeman of the Gulf. The attacks are also seen by Gulf analysts as a tit-for-tat retaliation for the earlier devastating Iraqi raid near Larak Island.
In his comments during the memorial service, Mr. Zakhem said the US was pursuing a policy of ``peace, freedom of navigation, and freedom from encroachment by bigger powers on our friends, the Gulf states.''
Yesterday's memorial service, attended by 100 diplomats, Navy officers, and US residents in Bahrain, was but the latest of several memorial services held in the region for the Stark. Last Tuesday, each of the US Navy ships on patrol held their own private memorial services at sea.
``Part of the lessons that were learned aboard the Stark were that you can never take anything for granted out there,'' Lt. Comdr. Mark Van Dyke, a US Navy spokesman, said. ``Every aircraft, every small boat has to be viewed as a possible threat, and of course mines are a constant threat.''
The commander adds, ``The Stark is still fresh in mind. It is part of everyone's thought on watch.''
Admiral Less, who took over command of US Naval forces in the region earlier this year, says that some of the lessons learned from the Stark tragedy were translated into crucial action recently when the US frigate Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine in the central Gulf last month.
In that incident, crew members battled to hold the severely damaged frigate together and keep it from sinking while gingerly trying to maneuver out of the mine field.
Less said the action on the Roberts was ``proof positive that others live because of the sacrifices of the men of the Stark.''
``That ship [the Roberts] should have sunk by all rights,'' Commander Van Dyke says. ``The only thing that kept it afloat was the men and the training that they have had to control the damage and flooding and fires.'' And he stressed, ``That is a direct result of Stark.''
According to officials, specific changes made by the Navy because of the Stark incident include: new heat-resistant suits for firefighters, the stocking of many more air canisters on ships to permit longer fire-fighting efforts, alterations to emergency oxygen masks to make them easier to put on quickly in a dark, wet, smokey room, and improved ship designs with fire walls to stop fires from spreading vertically on warships.