"I'd fly to Iran for a Camel," said the inscription on the side of one of the Marine helicopters aboard the USS Tarawa, a key element in the American military buildup in the Indian Ocean.

The takeoff on the cigarette slogan was a reminder of both the potential power of the U.S forces in the volatile region and the limitations of that power. The helicopter carrying the slogan was a CH53, the Marine Corps' equivalent of the Navy's Sea Stalion that failed in the mission to rescue the 52 American hostages from Iran in April.

The 40,000-ton helicopter carrrier Tarawa and its two escort ships, with a total complement of 4.000 troops, visited this East African port last month -- part of an ever-increasing U.S. presence in the area in the year since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

They are just a small part of the 34 U.S., warships assigned to the Indian Ocean to strengthen Washington's ability to deploy forces rapidly in an emergency.

Technically, the warships are not part of the post-Afghanistan Rapid Development Force, according to Capt. Richard Green, commander of the flotilla, but there is no question that they are on the leading edge if fighting erupts in this trouble-prone area.

The Pentagon terminology for the 1,800 Marines and more than 2,000 sailors is a "forward-deployed Navy-Marine team."

"These are charged-up guys. They know why they are here," said Brooklyn-born Col. Edmund Looney Jr., commander of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit aboard the Tarawa.

Speaking just 24 hours before the release of the hostages, Looney said, "Knowing the service we are, sure we would have liked to go over there" to Iran.

He said that with the current situation in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf it would be foolish for the United States not to use military facilities offered in the area. U.S. plans to provide Somalia with $40 million in weapons in return for use of military facilities have resulted in sharp criticism from neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.

Looney and Green gave few details of their mission and refused to talk about overall U.S. tactics in the area, although officials in Washington have made it clear that the U.S. military commitment in the Indian Ocean will not be reduced even though the hostage drama is over.

The 820-foot-long Tarawa, the first of a newly developed amphibious-warfare series of ships, is virtually a floating command post. Its main offensive power rests with 22 heavily armed helicopters, some of which can carry as many as 35 combat-equipped Marines, and six British-built Harriers, vertical-takeoff jet fighter-bombers. The Marine infantrymen are equipped with mortars, howitzers and missiles, as well as individual weapons.

The unit is outfitted, Looney said, for "intense combat" lasting up to two weeks. The idea is to take a beachhead or airstrip or similar facility and be able to hold it until larger forces can be brought in, presumably by U.S. Air Force planes using Rapid Deployment Force facilities in the Middle East and Horn of Africa.

The Tarawa, which combines the operational capabilities of four previous types of ships, is loaded with computerized technology. It carries 1.5 million gallons of fuel and has a two-acre flight deck.

The other two ships in the flotilla are the St. Louis, a cargo ship, and the Barber County, an updated version of the LST (landing-ship-tank) of World War II fame. Although considerably larger than the earlier models, the Barber County can come close to shore and unload the heavy equipment needed by the Marines.

The three ships left their home base of San Diego in mid-October and after training and shore leave in the Pacific and Southeast Asia entered the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca early this month.

With the increased presence of the U.S. Navy in the area, Mombasa has become a frequent port of call since it is the major developed harbor accessible to the Americans on Africa's east coast.

Last year the U.S. Navy made 40 visits compared to 17 the year before. The largest ship was the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier with more than 5,000 men.

During the Tarawa's three-day stay, the 4,000 sailors probably pumped more than $200,000 into the economy of Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city.

The visits are a boon for the souvenir salesmen, who line the port to sell their carved wooden animals and masks, and for prostitutes, who pack the trains coming to Mombasa when the fleet is in.

In August a 19-year-old U.S. sailor killed a prostitute. In a decision that was sharply criticized by many Kenyans, he was let off with a $70 fine by a British-born judge who has since been retired.

For the most part, however, the city seems happy with its visitors. On a drive to the luxury hotels north of Mombasa, Kenya's Riviera, little discontent with the American visitors was encountered.

One nightclub passes out handbills advertising a "disco, floor show, strip-tease, clean girls and pizza and hamburgers."