President Reagan on Tuesday portrayed Iran, not Iraq, as the chief villain in the missile attack by an Iraqi jet that killed 37 Americans aboard a U.S. Navy ship as it patrolled the Persian Gulf on Sunday night.
The Iraqi government has acknowledged that one of its Mirage F-1 jets mistakenly launched the lethal attack in the darkness. The President's blaming of Iran seemed calculated to edge the United States away from its position of careful neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War.
"The villain in the piece is really Iran," Reagan said in an interview with Tennessee reporters during a visit to Chattanooga. "They're delighted with what has just happened."
The President, recalling Iran's threat to close the gulf to ships carrying Iraqi oil and oil of nations supporting Iraq, stressed that the waterway is considered international and that "no country there has a right to try and close it off and take it for itself."
And he pointed out that Iraq has offered its approval of an international effort to bring peace to the region, "and it has been Iran that refused to go--to find a way of ending the war."
However, even as the President made his remarks, concern was expressed in Congress that the United States could be involving itself in the 6 1/2-year-old Iraq-Iran War through the presence of U.S. ships in the gulf.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy assured the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East that neutrality "has been and is" the U.S. policy in the conflict.
Some Fear Involvement
But the subcommittee chairman, California Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), said the incident involving the Navy frigate Stark and the Reagan Administration's decision to give 11 Kuwaiti tankers protection in the gulf cause some members of Congress to fear that the United States is "crossing the Rubicon" toward involvement in the conflict.
Lantos' subcommittee summoned State Department and Pentagon officials to Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon for Congress' first public examination of the tragedy, which occurred Sunday night when the Stark's hull was penetrated by an Exocet missile traveling at 600 m.p.h. But lawmakers learned little, if anything, new.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard A. Burpee, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Pentagon officials still had not talked directly with Cmdr. Glenn R. Brindel, the Stark's skipper, and could not explain why the frigate did not bring its sophisticated defense systems into play against the Exocet.
Brindel has been heavily involved in fighting fires aboard the ship since the attack, Burpee said. "He had full authority to defend his ship--why he didn't we won't know until we have had an opportunity to talk with him," the general said.
In the period before the ship was hit, two warnings were sent to the Iraqi jet, but there has been no confirmation that the pilot received the message identifying the ship as an American vessel.
The admiral commanding U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf has spoken with Brindel and told reporters Tuesday that two missiles struck the Stark, and he suggested that neither may have been an Exocet--both points contradicting the official Pentagon report.
The heavily damaged Stark, which had been patrolling about 80 miles northeast of Bahrain at the time of the attack, was towed toward port Tuesday after the Pentagon disclosed that the number of deaths from the attack had reached 37. A Pentagon spokesmen said that 24 of the dead crew members had been positively identified.
On Tuesday night, a military investigating team was scheduled to depart for Bahrain from Florida to begin a detailed reconstruction of what happened.
Joint Inquiry Planned
At the State Department, spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said that the United States had agreed to an Iraqi proposal for a joint investigation of the tragedy. The proposal was offered by Iraq on Monday, several hours before Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent Reagan a message accepting responsibility for what he called an "unintentional incident."
In Chattanooga on Tuesday, Reagan described the message as a "fulsome apology." When asked, upon his departure for Washington, whether the United States accepted the apology, he replied, "Of course."
The President, speaking to 2,700 graduating high school students in Tennessee, said that his order to naval forces Monday to increase their level of alert was the only action the government contemplates until there is a report by the Navy Review Board now beginning its investigation.
But he spoke in a much different tone than he used Monday, when he demanded an Iraqi apology and compensation for the damage. The course followed by the Mirage jet before it swept toward the Stark on Sunday night, he said, was one taken by Iraqi aircraft "all the time, and . . . we've never considered them hostile at all."
Navy Role 'Vital'
In addition, Reagan defended as "vital" the Navy's role of patrolling the international waters of the oil-rich gulf and escorting American-flag tankers and merchant vessels through the Strait of Hormuz. "It's a vital mission," he said. "Our ships need to protect themselves, and they will."
Burpee, testifying before the House subcommittee, said the order for a higher state of alert did nothing to change the rules of engagement followed by naval commanders in the gulf. Although details of the rules are secret, Pentagon officials say that commanders have every right to defend their ships when they consider them endangered.
However, Pentagon sources said that in addition to the investigation of the attack itself and the Navy's deployment in the gulf, there will now be a thorough investigation of the rules of engagement for U.S. forces there.
After Reagan met Monday with the National Security Planning Group, he issued a warning putting both Iraq and Iran on notice that U.S. vessels are prepared to fire if they sense hostile intent.
Murphy told the House subcommittee that the arrangement for 11 Kuwaiti tankers to be put under the American flag--and U.S. Navy protection in the gulf--will be completed in July.
While some members of Congress questioned the wisdom of the policy, others followed the lead of Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), suggesting that more capable U.S. warships--specifically cruisers armed with Aegis defense missiles--should be deployed.
After a briefing by Pentagon officials Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Paul S. Trible (R-Va.) said of the Stark, "This is a frigate, after all, and its ability to respond is limited."
The ship is equipped with a Phalanx system, a six-barrel gun that has been described as a "last-ditch" defense designed to destroy approaching missiles at point-blank range.
Some critics contend that security is impossible for vessels such as the Stark unless the United States also provides air cover for them. The nearest aircraft carrier was several days away from the site of the Stark attack.
Rudy Abramson reported from Washington and James Gerstenzang from Chattanooga.