U.S. Navy helicopters practiced minesweeping maneuvers in the Persian Gulf on Monday as a new convoy of Kuwaiti tankers prepared to leave Kuwait escorted by American warships.
The convoy of several U.S. warships and three Kuwaiti tankers, re-registered as American vessels, was assembled off Kuwait's Al Ahmadi oil terminal at the northern end of the gulf, awaiting word from the Navy on when to proceed.
The convoy's movements are being kept secret, but shipping sources said the tankers have been on standby since Saturday, when they finished taking on their cargoes of oil and gas.
Their U.S. naval escort was reinforced over the weekend with the arrival of the amphibious assault ship Guadalcanal carrying eight Sea Stallion minesweeping helicopters.
The specialized helicopters are expected to fly ahead of the convoy, clearing mines from the deep water channel near Iran's Farsi Island where the supertanker Bridgeton hit a mine July 24 during the first U.S.-escorted shuttle through the gulf.
Northeast of Bahrain
The Guadalcanal sailed into the gulf quietly on Saturday and anchored about 30 miles northeast of the tiny island state of Bahrain. However, late Sunday morning it unexpectedly weighed anchor and steamed southward, away from the convoy waiting about 200 miles farther up the gulf, witnesses said.
Shipping sources speculated that the 18,000-ton assault ship, the largest U.S. Navy vessel now in the gulf, may have moved to position itself in a secure area where it can serve as a flight deck for the Sea Stallions.
They noted that the ship itself need not sail north to accompany the convoy because the Sea Stallions are equipped with extra fuel tanks to give them greater range over the 550-mile-long gulf.
The huge helicopters, which literally sweep the sea with giant sleds attached to cables that snare underwater mines, conducted practice drills off Bahrain earlier in the day, making low passes over the sea around the Guadalcanal, according to Brent Sadler, a British television reporter shadowing the U.S. ship from a chartered vessel.
The Guadalcanal was ordered into the region to cover what, from the outset, has clearly been a weak spot in the Navy's ability to defend both itself and the Kuwaiti tankers that have been put under U.S. flag protection in response to threatened attacks by Iran.
While Pentagon strategists were preoccupied in the early stages of the re-registration operation with the risks posed by aircraft and the Silkworm missile sites that Iran is reported to have installed along the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranians were able to delay the first two convoys simply by sowing both ends of the gulf with mines--some of them Czarist-vintage devices from Russia that were sold to the North Koreans and resold to Iran.
It has proven to be a low-technology, old-fashioned and extremely cost-effective means of disrupting shipping and intimidating the smaller states of the gulf region which, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, have no minesweeping capabilities.
The mine blast that damaged the supertanker Bridgeton last month led to the embarrassing spectacle, on the second trip through the gulf--of the tankers leading the warships that were supposed to protect them. The large, thick-hulled tankers can withstand the force of a mine explosion far more effectively than the warships can.
Shipping officials were also shocked when the U.S.-owned tanker Texaco Caribbean struck a mine last week beyond the other end of the waterway, in the Gulf of Oman off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates.
It was the first time in the nearly seven-year-old war between Iran and Iraq that mines have appeared outside the Persian Gulf, in a busy area used as an anchorage by tankers entering and leaving the Strait of Hormuz.
Several more mines have been spotted in the area since then, and on Saturday a small Emirates-owned supply ship, the Anita, exploded and sank when it struck one of them off the Emirates' port of Fujaira. Five people, including the Anita's British captain, were killed.
Although Tehran accused the United States of mining Emirates waters, it is widely understood by officials here that Iran planted the mines to intimidate the tiny Emirates into withholding cooperation from the U.S.-led convoys.
The appearance of mines at this end of the gulf, in waters previously considered safe, prompted Britain and France to dispatch several minesweepers to the area to protect their own naval forces in the region.
Iran, for its part, continued to conduct its own minesweeping maneuvers in the Gulf of Oman on Monday, and the head of the Iranian navy repeated Tehran's offer to clear the area of mines if the Emirates agree to keep "foreign forces" out of the region.
The Emirates have already rejected the offer, which one source described as "incredibly ludicrous" in view of the belief that it was Iran that planted the mines in the first place.
However, diplomats and shipping sources speculated that the offer was Tehran's way of telling the Emirates that the security of their waters depends on Iran, not on U.S. or other foreign forces.
"They're using a carrot-and-stick approach, only in this case they gave the Emirates a taste of the stick before offering the carrot," one analyst said.
In the Iran-Iraq land war Monday, Iraq said that Iranian artillery heavily shelled the southern city of Basra overnight, causing extensive property damage.