Bush visits US Fifth Fleet amid Iran tensions

President George Bush visited the United States navy’s Fifth Fleet on Sunday amid new tensions with Iran over an incident in which the United States says its ships were harassed in the Strait of Hormuz.

Washington says Iranian boats threatened its warships on January 6 along the vital route for crude oil shipments from the world’s biggest producing region.

Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of the Fifth Fleet, made it clear to Bush his forces took the incident “deadly seriously,” White House spokesperson Dana Perino told reporters with Bush.

“All of the people in the military remember what’s happened in the past such as the USS Cole,” she said, referring to the deadly attack on the warship in Yemen in 2000.

During a stop in Israel at the start of Bush’s Middle East trip last week, he warned Iran of “serious consequences” if it attacked US ships, and said all options were on the table.

Tehran has dismissed the Strait of Hormuz incident as routine contact and accused the United States of exaggerating for propaganda purposes.

Bush went to the sprawling naval complex in Bahrain, a Gulf island kingdom that is home to the Fifth Fleet, before going on to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, where he will give a signature speech on the advancement of democracy.

On the visit to Bahrain on Sunday, Bush entered a US naval mess hall to loud applause and shouted “good morning” to sailors, marines and soldiers assembled for breakfast.

Joining the chow line, Bush picked up some pancakes, syrup and bacon, then sat down to breakfast with the sailors.

Push to isolate Iran

In Abu Dhabi, Bush was greeted in light drizzle by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan and Vice-President and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, before heading to the palace for talks and lunch.

The UAE is the third stop on Bush’s tour of US-allied Arab states that will also take him to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Bush hopes to boost US efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear ambitions, with Bush saying late last year that a nuclear-armed Iran could mean “World War III”.

The Bush administration has kept up a campaign of harsh rhetoric despite a US intelligence report in December that concluded Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, contradicting the president’s long-standing assertion that Tehran was actively pursuing development of a bomb.

Bush has insisted that Iran remains a danger. Tehran says it wants nuclear technology for strictly civilian purposes.

But the National Intelligence Estimate has left Washington’s Arab allies worried and confused. They share US concerns about Tehran’s growing regional influence but want efforts at containment to be done without resorting to military means.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mohammad Ali Hosseini said US efforts to isolate Iran had failed as Gulf Arab neighbours had been actively engaging their Shi’ite Muslim neighbour.

“What we have witnessed was a very good and clever and alert response of countries in the region towards this, let’s say, bad policy of the United States and this has not been given any credit, these policies,” he said at a weekly news conference.

“Along with the use of such policies by the Americans we witness a surge in convergence between countries of the region and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Kuwait has repeatedly said it will not allow the United States to use its territory for any strike against Iran.

Saudi Arabia said ahead of Bush’s arrival in the Gulf that it would listen to the president but that national interests came first in dealing with Iran, and it could directly talk through any problems with its neighbour.

Bush will visit the UAE’s trade and tourism hub Dubai before heading for Saudi Arabia and then Egypt as he tries to rally Arab support for his Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts.
- Reuters

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