DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, OCT. 4 -- Iran said today it had conducted "limited scale" naval maneuvers in the northern Persian Gulf during the weekend in part to meet the threat of "foreign forces in the region," according to Iran's state news agency.
The statement, on Tehran radio, was the first acknowledgment of what western sources have described as an aborted attempt by an Iranian flotilla of about 60 armed speedboats to attack Saudi and Kuwaiti offshore oil fields.
Iran's description of the event seemed unusual because it normally announces naval exercises in advance, warning ships and aircraft in the area. The speedboat flotilla was launched at night with no announcement.
The Iranian statement did not mention any confrontation with Saudi Arabian forces. U.S. military sources said Saudi Arabia sent jets and warships to ward off the speedboats when they sped toward a Saudi-Kuwaiti offshore oil field. The field's profits are donated to Iraq, Iran's enemy in the Persian Gulf war.
Three U.S. warships were ordered to the area Friday night after U.S. and Saudi intelligence reports indicated the Iranian flotilla intended to attack onshore and offshore oil installations near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.
The commander of the 11-ship U.S. Middle East Task Force, Rear Adm. Harold J. Berensen, today told pool reporters on his command ship, USS LaSalle, that "the Iraqis had an air presence" in the northern gulf at the time the Iranians had massed the speedboats in the area. Western sources in the region said earlier that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain had also scrambled air forces when the Iranian flotilla had crossed the gulf.
Berensen explained yesterday's events to pool reporters by saying, "There were a number of Iranian small craft that were out and about in the gulf." He said some of the craft were "speedboats," but added, "There were various types of craft." He said the LaSalle and two frigates, the Thach and the Ford, were diverted to the area because, "When we get something that's unusual, we like to know about it."
Asked whether U.S. warships were responding to Saudi concerns, he said, "I don't have any orders that related to the Saudis particularly. There have been lots of threats against the Saudis, but last night's activity was activity that was in the gulf, and that's my concern."
In Washington, White House spokesman Dan Howard said, "We are aware of the fact that there were some small boats in the northern gulf and there were some Saudi naval vessels cruising in the area and the small boats, presumably Iranian, have now left the area."
Iranian forces pounded the southern Iraqi city of Basra with heavy artillery fire today in retaliation for a wave of Iraqi raids on Iranian oil targets. Iraq said many people, mostly women and children, were killed.
Tehran radio reported that Iranian forces rained artillery on the railway station at Shoaibiya and the industrial area of Zubair, south of Basra and less than 20 miles from Kuwait.