US launches show of force off Iran’s coast

DUBAI (AP) — Ships packed with 17,000 sailors and US marines moved into the Persian Gulf Wednesday as the US navy staged another show of military force off Iran’s coast — just days before the US start of direct talks with Iran in Baghdad.

The carrier strike groups led by the USS John C. Stennis and USS Nimitz were joined by the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard and its own strike group, which includes two landing ships carrying 2,100 members of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Aircraft aboard the two carriers and the Bonhomme Richard were to conduct air training while the ships ran submarine, mine and other exercises. The navy has maintained its two-carrier presence since February when the Stennis arrived in the Mideast waters.

Both carriers, with about 80 warplanes apiece, are expected to remain in the region through the summer, as part of the Bush administration’s stepped-up military presence off Iranian shores.

The war games — which culminate in an amphibious landing exercise in Kuwait, just a few miles from Iran — are a clear warning to Tehran, coming just ahead of Iran’s talks with Washington and also at a time when the United Nations contemplates tightening its sanctions further against Iran for its failure to halt nuclear enrichment.

“There’s a link to both events,” said Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. “The Americans are sending a message to Iran that they are not coming to the negotiating table weak, but with their military at Tehran’s doorstep.” Washington is also showing Iran that the US military will act to defeat any Iranian war strategy of closing the straits, which Iran shares with Oman, Alani said.

US and Iranian ambassadors are to meet Monday in Baghdad to discuss Iraq’s security issues.

Tehran has objected to US claims that Iran is supplying Iraqi Shiite groups with deadly roadside bombs that kill American troops in Iraq. The US has also accused Iran of covertly developing nuclear weapons, but Iran has denied the charge, saying its nuclear programme is peaceful.

The nine ships taking part in the manoeuvres were already on patrol in Mideast waters outside the Gulf when they passed through the narrow Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday and began air and sea manoeuvres in the Gulf. Two-fifths of the world’s oil is transported through the busy straits. US warships under 5th Fleet command patrol the Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

“This training demonstrates our commitment to security and stability in the Gulf area and our commitment to regional partners,” said Vice Admiral Kevin J. Cosgriff, commander of the Bahrain-based US 5th Fleet.

Besides the Stennis, Nimitz and Bonhomme Richard, the war games bring together the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam and USS Princeton, the destroyers USS OKane and USS Higgins, and the landing ships USS Denver and USS Rushmore.

The Nimitz arrived in the region from its home port in San Diego, California, earlier this month, replacing the departing USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Publicly, at least, the navy isn’t saying the manoeuvres are directed at Iran.

“The timing of the exercise was determined by the availability of forces in the area of operations,” said 5th Fleet spokesman Lt. John Gay. 

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