Two U.S. warships will be leaving the Persian Gulf area in the coming weeks, Reagan Administration sources said Wednesday, but officials insisted that the move does not signal a change in U.S. policy or strategy.
The helicopter carrier Okinawa and the battleship Iowa will be withdrawn because they are no longer needed to carry out their minesweeping and tanker escort missions, officials said privately.
Publicly, however, the Administration maintained that no final decision has been reached on reducing Navy strength in the gulf. Officials were careful to avoid giving the impression that the United States is rethinking its policy of policing the gulf at a time when both Iran and Iraq have stepped up their attacks on neutral shipping.
No Action Taken
"The policy is unchanged in the gulf," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters. "We have always said we would like to reduce the naval presence in the gulf when it is warranted, but at this point, no action has been taken."
President Reagan, asked at a signing ceremony if he is ordering ships out of the gulf, said, "I don't answer questions, but that one's easy: No!"
The Navy has 18 ships in the Persian Gulf, seven in the adjacent Gulf of Oman and the northern Arabian Sea and another eight nearby in the Indian Ocean.
The move to reduce the size of the U.S. presence in the gulf is being made in part because of budget considerations, a Pentagon source said. The mission is costing the Navy an additional $20 million a month over its normal operating expenses, even as the military is being forced to cut spending by billions of dollars to meet congressional budget reduction targets.
Sources who requested anonymity said that the Okinawa, stationed in the gulf, will be withdrawn soon because its primary mission as a platform for minesweeping helicopters has been transferred to six smaller minesweeping vessels that arrived in the region late last year.
The battleship Iowa will be rotated out of the northern Arabian Sea within "a couple of months," officials said. The United States has kept a battleship on station within missile range of Iran since the U.S. presence in the Middle East was strengthened last summer to escort 11 reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers into and out of the troubled gulf.
It was not clear whether the Iowa's two escort ships--a guided missile cruiser and a destroyer--would leave the region along with the Iowa.
'Lower Level of Concern'
"She (the Iowa) was put in early on, when nobody was quite sure what the Iranians might do," a high-ranking Administration official. "They were talking big, so you had this heavyweight power up there. Nobody's relaxed to the point of saying the Iranians are benign, but there is a lower level of concern that the Iranians might do anything on a major scale."
Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, on a weeklong tour of the gulf region, refused to confirm or deny Pentagon plans to remove the two warships.
"I think you are referring to a leak, as opposed to an announcement," he told reporters. "I have not signed off on any ship movements."
Carlucci said the status of U.S. forces near the Iran-Iraq War zone is under review to keep them at a minimum level while maintaining a commitment to protect gulf states such as Kuwait and Bahrain, which have tried to stay neutral in the gulf war.
"Let me emphasize that no policy changes are contemplated," he said in a television interview from Bahrain.
Carlucci also said that he will discuss with Saudi Arabian officials any proposals that they may have to extend U.S. efforts to protect ships flying under the flags of other nations.
"Obviously, if the Saudis make a request of us, we will give it serious consideration," he said, "but we've never viewed our mission in the gulf as being the policemen of the gulf. But we want to do everything we can to help our friends meet their security needs."