KUWAIT, JAN. 5 -- Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, on his first tour of the Persian Gulf since taking office in November, said the United States will not become the policeman of the high seas for international shipping, which has suffered its worst month of attacks in the "tanker war" between Iran and Iraq.
After a day of meetings with the leaders of this northern gulf sheikdom, Carlucci indicated that he intends to keep the American military mission in the strategic waterway limited in scope, despite calls from shipping executives and Arab leaders seeking to quell a surge of Iranian gunboat attacks, particularly near the Strait of Hormuz.
Kuwait placed 11 of its oil tankers under American registry last summer for U.S. protection from the Iranian speedboat forces.
On a self-described mission to learn about the U.S. escort operation from Arab leaders and from U.S. Navy commanders, the defense secretary told reporters at the U.S. ambassador's residence here, "If there are some changes that need to be made, I will make them, or make the appropriate recommendation to the president, but I have no changes in mind at this point."
Responding to complaints by some shipping industry officials that oil tankers flying flags of other countries have become targets of attack, making the large U.S. and western naval presence appear irrelevant, Carlucci said, "If other nations want to put their ships under the American flag, they are entitled to the same protection.
"We are not policing every area of the high seas for every country," Carlucci continued. "That is not an appropriate role for the United States. We have no apologies to make to anyone."
On the first leg of a tour that will take him to Bahrain on Wednesday, then to Oman and Saudi Arabia, Carlucci called the reflagging and escort operation a success with the exception of what he termed the "minor incident" on the first convoy. The Kuwaiti supertanker Bridgeton struck a mine last July that tore a hole in its hull and put it in dry dock for more than a month.
Since that initial convoy, the U.S. Navy has conducted 22 escort operations up and down the 550-mile waterway without incident. A second U.S.-flag tanker, the Sea Isle City, was struck by an Iranian Silkworm missile in October at Kuwait's oil loading port where it was no longer under U.S. protection.
Carlucci, the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Kuwait, said he discussed this city state's defensive needs with Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah and other senior Kuwaitis, and he termed U.S.-Kuwaiti relations as "excellent."
Kuwait has asked the United States, Britain and France to propose new weapons sales that would help Kuwait defend against missile strikes by Iranian Silkworm batteries 50 miles to the north, on the tip of the Faw Peninsula.
Carlucci said the United States has not requested any basing facilities from Kuwait for U.S. naval or air forces. "We really have no interest in military bases here," he said. "We think the present range of cooperation is adequate to meet the threat."
A representative of the state-run Kuwait News Agency challenged Carlucci, saying the United States was doing nothing to protect international shipping and adding that the "feeling on the street" in Kuwait is that "every day we see that Iran is attacking more ships while the U.S. is turning a blind eye."
"If that is the feeling, it has not been conveyed to me by any members of the government," Carlucci replied. "Escorting 21 convoys back and forth without incident is hardly the equivalent of doing nothing."