Commercial seamen, fishermen, oil workers, and even beach-goers face a long-term threat from drifting sea mines unless Iran and Iraq help pinpoint the locations of remaining Gulf mine fields, United States military sources warn. The sources, who ask not to be named, have detailed knowledge of Gulf-wide efforts to clean up the eight-year accumulation of mines that are moored or drifting in the strategic waterway. US officials estimate that 150 to 175 mines may still be deployed. They are considered the No. 1 threat to shipping in the Gulf.
The sources say there is a danger that with Iran-Iraq peace talks under way and the level of tension in the region decreasing, some Western European navies may begin to pull out their mine-hunting vessels before the massive clearing effort is completed. Even a partial pullout would make it more difficult to clear the Gulf, the US sources say.
US Navy officers have long stressed that an end to the Gulf war will not bring an automatic end to war-related dangers in the region.
``The mines don't know the war is over,'' says Captain Jim Miller, former commander of US minesweeping forces in the Gulf. ``They are cocked and ready to fire, and if we don't deal with them on our terms we will have to deal with them on their terms,'' he says.
Seven mines have been discovered in the northern Gulf in the past month and a half.
Some US officials in the region say the Gulf states should forcefully appeal to both Iraq and Iran to release the precise locations of remaining mine fields. ``Without that information, you are talking long-term,'' one US military officer says, referring to the mine threat.
``I feel a sense of urgency,'' he adds. ``The [Western] countries that are considering leaving, would stay, if there was a real job to do and if they could see the results.''
The officer stresses, ``While they are here they will be willing to do it, but when they are gone it will be hard to bring them back.''
The US, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium all sent minesweepers to the Gulf last year in response to the threat to shipping.
But after months of operating in the southern Gulf with only a few mines located, some nations are considering bringing their minesweepers home. Belgium has already announced its one mine hunter will leave the Gulf by the end of the year. Italy and the Netherlands are considering a similar pullout.
There are 16 Western minesweepers in the region at present: six from the US, three from Britain, three from France, two from Italy, one from Belgium, and one from the Netherlands.
In addition, the Soviet Union has stationed three minesweepers in the Gulf to help protect Soviet convoys.
Aside from the continuing threat from deployed mines, US military sources say that special measures must also be taken to relocate and destroy an estimated 12 to 50 mines that have been routinely shot at and sunk during the course of the war by naval patrol boats from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states.
The unexploded mines are resting - fully charged - on the Gulf's shallow sea floor. Mine warfare experts say that with time the mine's explosive charge becomes less stable and is more likely to explode at any point.
They warn that the mines could be detonated by the turbulence of a tanker steaming above and churning up the sand and mud on the bottom of the Gulf.
And they point out that the sunken mines are still subject to the Gulf's strong undercurrents. Some mines might eventually lodge near underwater oil pipelines or near any of the manned offshore oil rigs that dot the Gulf. Some may even wash ashore, they say.
Last year a boy was killed on a Bahraini beach while playing on a mine that had washed ashore. Earlier this summer a mine was discovered on a beach in Qatar.