RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA, DEC. 26 -- Saudi Arabia's King Fahd appeared to defend the presence of foreign navies in the Persian Gulf today, while arguing that the Arab states on the gulf have a right to seek outside help to prevent Iranian efforts to widen its seven-year-old war with Iraq.

Meeting with the leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudi monarch dismissed as "unreasonable and illogical" Iranian demands for ending the fighting. Iran's demands include recognition of Iraq as the aggressor in the war. Fahd praised Iraq for its readiness to talk peace and said Iran had rejected "all gulf, Islamic and international efforts" to end the conflict, including a U.N. Security Council cease-fire call.

In an apparent defense of the presence of the U.S. and other western navies in the Persian Gulf, Fahd said, "The power of a country is not determined by its population or its size and each country has its own force and can always seek the help of other countries because it is right to call outside help." Iran's population of 50 million is nearly triple that of the Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are known to want the session to take a tough stance against Iran while Oman and the United Arab Emirates are believed to be less supportive of such action.

{An Iranian gunboat attacked and set fire to a Saudi oil tanker in the gulf, in an apparent warning to the Arab leaders meeting in Riyadh to avoid a strong stance against Tehran, UPI reported from Manama, Bahrain. The gunboat fired several rocket-propelled grenades into the Nejmat Petrol 19 off the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates, shipping officials said.

{Diplomats and analysts in the region interpreted the attack on the Saudi vessel as a direct warning to Saudi Arabia, as it hosted the gulf Arab summit meeting.}

The Associated Press reported from Manama, Bahrain:

Iraq's official news agency quoted a military spokesman as saying Iraqi fighters had struck a "large maritime target," which usually means an oil tanker. If confirmed, the attack would be the 27th this month, a record.

Following the surge of attacks, witnesses said British and French warships were escorting other nations' vessels in an apparent expansion of their navies' roles in the gulf.

The reported escorts by British and French warships through the Strait of Hormuz indicated that the nations were veering from their stated policy of protecting only their own country's ships in the gulf. The British frigate Scylla steamed north into the gulf in a convoy that included non-British vessels. The largest tanker currently sailing, the 564,731-ton, Bermuda-registered Esso Atlantic, was in the convoy.

The French destroyer Dupleix and four tankers -- two French and two Liberian-flagged were headed south.

British naval vessels previously have allowed third-nation ships to trail behind its convoys. But such "hitchhikers" normally follow at a distance and out of line from the regular convoy. According to English and gulf-based shipping executives, the convoys today moved in single file, with no apparent large gaps between ships.

Britain's Defense Ministry said there had been no change in the rules of engagement. But one Dubai-based shipping executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the convoys may herald a new phase of expanded protection for ships from nations that have no forces in the gulf.

United Press International reported from Tokyo:

The Japanese government appeared to reverse its stance on the U.S.-led embargo of Iranian oil, calling for a 33 percent cut in imports from Iran, the leading business newspaper reported. The trade ministry asked 10 major firms to cut imports of Iranian oil from 300,000 barrels a day to no more than 200,000 barrels, the Nihon Kezai Shimbun reported. Government spokesmen refused to comment.