The Defense Department will send a team of military officials to Iraq this week to discuss a series of incidents in which Iraqi warplanes have veered dangerously close to U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, according to Pentagon officials.
The Pentagon action was spurred by an incident Friday in which an Iraqi Badger bomber fired two long-range cruise missiles within eight miles of the USS Chandler, which was escorting U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti oil tankers through the gulf.
Pentagon officials said they do not believe the missiles were aimed at the destroyer, but the U.S. vessel fired flares to warn the pilot that he was too close to the ships.
"The flights . . . gave us a great deal of concern," Richard L. Armitage, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said at a Pentagon news briefing yesterday. "We have communicated with them in Baghdad the undesirability of this dangerous practice."
It was an Iraqi pilot who fired two Exocet missiles, apparently accidentally, into the USS Stark last May, killing 37 sailors and setting off a major controversy over the U.S. role in the gulf -- where Iran and Iraq have waged an air and sea war for more than seven years.
U.S. commanders in the gulf say they fear accidental attacks from Iraqi pilots far more than intentional attacks from Iranian speedboats, Silkworm missiles or mines.
American military officials have discussed the problem with Iraqi military officials since the Stark incident, according to Pentagon officials. U.S. military commanders in the region since have reported numerous incidents in which they have been forced to warn away Iraqi planes flying too near their ships. In some cases, the Iraqi pilots have pulled away as U.S. ship commanders were on the verge of firing at their planes.
Pentagon officials yesterday also confirmed media reports that the United States is withdrawing two of its largest ships from the North Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf area.
Armitage said the reduction of the forces in the region does not represent a lessening of U.S. military commitment to the region. He called it an "economy of force," based on several months of experience in the area.
Armitage said that 28 Navy ships now operate in the Persian Gulf and immediate region, but the number fluctuates daily as replacement ships move in and out of the area.
Although the Navy is cutting only three vessels, they include two of the largest U.S. ships in the area -- the battleship USS Iowa and the amphibious assault ship USS Okinawa. In addition, the highly sophisticated air defense Aegis cruiser USS Ticonderoga, one of two escorts for the Iowa, will be pulled out of the region.
Pentagon officials said the Iowa was assigned to the region early in the reflagging operation in case the Navy needed to launch a long-range shore attack. Officials say the Navy has determined it no longer needs a battleship in the area.
The Navy also is withdrawing the big amphibious assault ship USS Okinawa and its fleet of RH53 minesweeping helicopters. Military officials said the helicopters were only marginally useful in hunting the old contact mines used by the Iranians and now are unnecessary because a full complement of U.S. minesweeping ships is in the gulf in addition to minesweepers from allied nations.
Pentagon officials also announced that the two U.S. Navy warships that were bumped by Soviet ships off the Crimean coast last week have left the Black Sea and are now in the Mediterranean Sea.