Nine US warships enter Gulf in show of force

Nine United States warships carrying 17 000 personnel entered the Persian Gulf on Wednesday in a show of force off Iran’s coast that navy officials said was the largest daytime assembly of ships since the 2003 Iraq war.

US Navy officials said Iran had not been notified of plans to sail the ships, which include two aircraft carriers, through the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow channel in international waters off Iran’s coast and a major artery for global oil shipments.

Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn, who is leading the group, said the ships would conduct exercises as part of a long-planned effort to reassure regional allies of US commitment to Persian Gulf security.

”There’s always the threat of any state or non state actor that might decide to close one of the international straits, and the biggest one is the Straits of Hormuz,” he told reporters on board the USS John C Stennis aircraft carrier.

”What is special about this is that you have two strike groups. Everybody will see us because it is in daylight.”

Most US ships pass through the straits at night so as not to attract attention, and rarely move in such large numbers.

Navy officials said the decision to send a second aircraft carrier was made at the last minute, without giving a reason.

The group of ships crossed at roughly 3.55am GMT.

Tension between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and Iraq has raised regional fears of a possible military confrontation that could hit Gulf economies and threaten vital oil exports.

Show of force

On the way to the straits, a public announcement called on crew to witness ”some of the most powerful ships in the world”, whose tight formation against a backdrop of the setting sun created a dramatic image of American naval might.

The move comes less than two weeks after US Vice-President Dick Cheney, speaking aboard the Stennis during a tour of the Persian Gulf, said the United States would stand with others to prevent Iran gaining nuclear weapons and ”dominating the region”.

On a visit to Abu Dhabi a few days later, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened ”severe” retaliation if the US attacked his country, which is locked in a stand-off with the United States over its nuclear programme.

He also urged Persian Gulf countries to ”get rid of” foreign forces, blaming them for insecurity in the region.

The US accuses Iran of trying to produce nuclear weapons, and has sought tougher UN sanctions against Iran. Iran says its nuclear ambitions are for energy purposes only.

US and Iranian ambassadors are due to meet on Monday in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq, where the United States has accused Iran of fomenting violence by backing Shi’ite militia there, and of providing weapons and the technology for roadside bombs. Iran has denied the accusations.

Last month, the US Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain conducted its biggest crisis response drill and in March, the US navy conducted its biggest war drills in the Persian Gulf since 2003.

”If the Straits of Hormuz were to be closed or there were to be some conflict there, the shipping rates would go sky high,” Quinn said. – Reuters

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