Western navies alert for trouble in Gulf though calm prevails

Tanker captains, merchant seamen, fishermen, shipping executives, naval officers, oil workers, and others are breathing a collective sigh of relief this week amid signs that the Gulf's ``tanker war'' may have ended. Military commanders on both sides of the 730-mile Iran-Iraq war front have already ordered their troops to stop fighting. But Iraq accused Iran yesterday of shelling its forces on several sectors of the war front, while Iran charged Wednesday that Iraqi jets violated Iranian airspace. And analysts expect both nations to adopt tough positions in advance of the Aug. 25 negotiations in Geneva.

In the meantime, the Gulf has been quiet.

But Western military officials are taking no chances. Their navies will patrol the strategic waterway until peace between Iran and Iraq is unquestionably established.

United States Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, in comments earlier this week, emphasized that as the threat in the Gulf shrinks, so will the current 27-ship US naval task force stationed here. But he stressed Washington's resolve to maintain at least five US warships in the Gulf even in peacetime, noting that American sailors have been patrolling the Gulf since World War II.

A similar commitment was voiced by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a surprise visit Tuesday to a British warship steaming off Dubai.

``This is your prime minister speaking,'' Mrs. Thatcher declared over the ship-wide public address system on the destroyer HMS Manchester. She told the crew that Britain's four-ship Armilla Patrol and three minesweepers would remain in the Gulf until genuine peace is certain.

Throughout the Gulf, optimism is growing among those closest to the tanker war - a spin-off of the Iran-Iraq land war - that has damaged 548 commercial ships since May 1981 and killed an estimated 474 sailors.

``It has been a very tough time for sailors,'' says Ivar Aartun, a Lutheran minister at the Norwegian Seaman's Center here. But ``they are not as afraid as they were two weeks ago,'' before Iran accepted a UN peace resolution.

The last reported attack on shipping occurred Aug. 4, when Iranian gunboats sprayed machine-gun fire across the bridge of the Norwegian tanker Berge Lord. The Berge Lord was the 96th ship attacked in the Gulf this year. There were no injuries and only minor damage.

But the incident has raised concerns among some analysts that the attack may have been carried out by Iranian Revolutionary Guards opposed to Iran's current peace efforts. These analysts say it remains unclear whether radical factions within the Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guards, might attempt to sabotage peace talks and rapprochement with Western nations by resuming attacks on tankers or sowing new mines in the Gulf.

``There is no cohesion in the Iranian government,'' says a Western diplomat. He stresses that, with the proliferation of factions in Tehran, the Gulf War cease-fire remains highly vulnerable to the whims of radicals. ``So if something happens, we cannot say Iran has attacked a tanker. We must look closely and say the Pasdaran has attacked a tanker,'' the diplomat says.

On the positive side, the continuing de facto cease-fire in the Gulf has helped ease tension in the radar and electronic warfare rooms of Western warships on patrol.

A team of experts from the International Civil Aviation Organization is currently in the United Arab Emirates investigating last month's US missile attack on an Iranian civilian airliner over the Strait of Hormuz that killed 290 persons. News reports from the Pentagon, based on leaked accounts of a yet-to-be-released Navy investigation, have said crew members aboard the US cruiser Vincennes misinterpreted radar and other data in the heat of battle and shot the jet down in what they thought was self-defense.

Gulf-based diplomats say the incident underscores the difficulty a sophisticated warship has operating in a narrow, shallow waterway while facing a range of potential threats. And it's not a problem of the US Navy alone.

According to the London-based Sunday Observer, a British destroyer came within 10 seconds of firing missiles at a civilian cargo plane that flew by mistake over the warship off the coast of the UAE last year.

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