U.S. warships and aircraft sank or heavily damaged six Iranian navy ships Monday as a major confrontation erupted in the Persian Gulf in the wake of the United States' early morning strike against two Iranian oil platforms, the Reagan Administration said.
U.S. and Iranian forces fired on each other in the broadest and most direct conflict yet, suddenly escalating what for months had been a war of nerves in the volatile waterway.
After ordering U.S. naval units to destroy the oil platforms in the southern gulf, in what he described as a "measured response" to renewed Iranian mining of the gulf that damaged a U.S. frigate last week, President Reagan declared:
"We've taken this action to make certain the Iranians have no illusions about the cost of irresponsible behavior. We aim to deter further Iranian aggression, not provoke it."
'They'll Pay a Price'
He added: "They must know that we will protect our ships--and if they threaten us, they'll pay a price."
No American fatalities or injuries were reported, but Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said Monday afternoon that a Cobra attack helicopter, carrying two crewmen, was late returning to a Navy cruiser and that a search was under way. Iran claimed that one of its warships had shot down an American helicopter.
There was no U.S. report of Iranian casualties, but crewmen were seen abandoning the oil platforms just before the facilities were destroyed.
The gulf clashes represented the most serious fighting between the United States and Iran since the stepped-up deployment of U.S. warships began nine months ago to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers threatened in the Iran-Iraq War.
The fighting left an Iranian frigate crippled and ablaze, another frigate heavily damaged and under tow and a patrol boat sunk. In addition, three small speedboats, typically used by Iranian Revolutionary Guards to launch rocket attacks on gulf shipping and known as Boghammars, were attacked by U.S. forces, with one sunk and two others heavily damaged.
But the fighting intensified after Iranian gunboats attacked the Willi Tide, a U.S.-owned commercial oil-field supply ship, which returned, damaged, to port in Dubai; two Iranian speedboats fired rockets and machine guns at a Panamanian-flagged vessel, the Scan Bay, in the Mubarak oil field off the emirate of Sharjah, and a British oil tanker was attacked and set ablaze.
Small craft near the Mubarak oil field also were fired on by three Iranian speedboats.
Another attack by Iranian speedboats touched off fires in an offshore oil complex of the United Arab Emirates.
Congressional leaders--some of whom were summoned to the White House on Sunday evening for a top-secret briefing on the planned mission--expressed fears Monday that the conflict could escalate. But although they raised some concerns during the White House meeting, according to White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, they closed ranks Monday to support Reagan's decision to strike the oil platforms.
"I think it was a legitimate response," Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said.
At the same time, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates generally supported the U.S. attack, although the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the growing crisis raised new questions about U.S. policy in the region.
'More Foolish This Time'
Although the Administration was prepared for an Iranian military reply to the strike on the oil platforms, the magnitude of Tehran's response caught U.S. officials by surprise. One U.S. official remarked that "they were a bit more brazen and foolish in their response this time," compared to previous incidents in which U.S. retaliatory strikes brought no direct Iranian responses.
"We were prepared to do more, and when they obliged us, we did more. The Iranians obliged by doing some pretty foolish things today, which we were aching for them to do," said another aide, a senior official at the Pentagon.
Carlucci, asked to explain why Iran ignored U.S. warnings not to respond to the initial retaliatory attacks on the oil platforms, said at a news conference: "I'm not sure that it's explainable in terms of Western logic at this point. I have only to assume that it's some kind of a fanatical reaction or slavish obedience to a contingency plan."
In the most extensive U.S. air action over the gulf, an American A-6 Intruder bomber, launched from the carrier Enterprise in the northern Arabian Sea just outside the gulf, destroyed one Iranian speedboat and badly damaged the other two.
In a separate incident, the Iranian frigate Sahand fired on an American A-6 aircraft, the Pentagon said. In response, three A-6 jets fired Harpoon missiles and laser-guided bombs at the ship, steaming in the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the gulf. A Harpoon missile fired by the U.S. destroyer Joseph Strauss struck the Sahand as well, starting a fire on the 310-foot warship, which reportedly had closed in on three U.S. ships near Larak Island and had refused to change course.
"It ignored warnings from U.S. aircraft and was then attacked," a Pentagon spokesman said. "All (missiles and bombs) seem to have hit the frigate, and it is heavily damaged."
The Iranian frigate Sabalan also fired on an A-6, which struck back with a laser-guided bomb. The Pentagon said that as darkness fell over the gulf, the ship was "down by the stern, with tugs fore and aft."
Jets Fired On
In addition, four Iranian F-4 jet fighters--supplied to the pre-revolutionary government of Iran by the United States--took off from the Iranian air base at Bandar Abbas at the beginning of the action but were airborne only a few minutes before returning to their base, Fitzwater said. During the time they were aloft, the aircraft bore down on the U.S. cruiser Wainwright, which launched two missiles at the Iranian jets.
The daylong clash began when U.S. forces attacked the two multistory oil drilling platforms, which also were used as command and control radar sites. These sites played central roles in Iranian military operations run by Revolutionary Guards in the southern gulf, about 100 miles northwest of Abu Dhabi.
U.S. officials said they were not sure how many Iranians were deployed on the platforms, which sit on stilts in the shallow gulf and resemble the oil platforms off Southern California. They are normally manned by 20 to 40 people, Fitzwater said.
Shipping company sources monitoring radio transmissions in the region said the first hint of an attack occurred at about 8 a.m. local time (10 p.m. PDT Sunday) when they heard an American ship warning workers on two Iranian platforms, the Sassan and Sirri-D, to leave the rigs immediately.
The Associated Press, quoting shipping radio monitors, reported that an unidentified U.S. ship told those on the platforms that they would be "shelled in five minutes."
After the Iranians protested they had no instructions to evacuate, the American operator responded, "We will blast the platform in half a second."
One platform, the Sassan, was boarded by U.S. Marine demolition experts from the destroyers Merrill and McCormick, who found it protected by machine guns and surface-to-air missiles. The Marines set demolition charges that destroyed it. Fifteen minutes later the Sirri-D was destroyed by fire from the Wainwright and two frigates, the Simpson and the Bagley.
Tugs Rescue Survivors
Shipping sources in the region said Iranian tugs were permitted to approach the burning platforms to rescue survivors but not to fight the fires.
Shortly after the attacks on the drilling platforms, the Iranian missile boat Joshan approached U.S. warships near the Sirri and was destroyed by missiles fired from a U.S. frigate and cruiser.
Reagan ordered the strikes after a series of conferences that began Friday and culminated in a meeting in the White House family quarters with national security aides Sunday evening. The move was made in retaliation for evidence that Iran had resumed its mining in the gulf, damaging the U.S. frigate Samuel B. Roberts last Thursday after it struck a recently planted mine. Ten American sailors were injured in that incident, four of them seriously.
The attack on the Roberts broke a six-month period of relative calm between the U.S. Navy task force and Iran in the gulf--a calm that had led military analysts to believe the deterrent effect of the American presence was working.
Quietly, the U.S. naval force has been reduced from more than 40 ships to 29.
Britain on Monday endorsed both the U.S. evidence of renewed Iranian mining and the American military action. In a statement to the House of Commons, David Mellor, minister of state in the Foreign Office, stated: "The Americans have clear evidence of fresh Iranian mine laying, a cowardly act which we utterly condemn."
He added: "We support the American action as a measured and proportionate response. . . ." Earlier, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the U.S. reaction "entirely justified."
Lloyd's Registry of Shipping identified the damaged British tanker as the York Marine, a 13-year-old vessel operated by the American company Petro Bulk Partners. Although entitled to British naval protection because of its British ownership, Royal Navy sources in London said they had no record of the ship's presence in the area.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch defense minister announced that a European minesweeping flotilla in the Persian Gulf had temporarily suspended operations pending the outcome of the U.S.-Iranian naval confrontation. Defense Minister Willem van Eekelen made the announcement at a meeting in The Hague of the seven-nation Western European Union.
Even as the initial attacks were launched Monday morning, the White House sought to portray an atmosphere of calm. Once the course was set, Reagan retired for the evening and his assistant for national security affairs, Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, went home.
During a speech Monday to a group of students honored for voluntary activities, Reagan made no mention of the activity in the gulf. But later in the day, during remarks to a group of contractors invited to a White House meeting, he inserted brief comments in a speech on the economy to take note of the confrontation.
"A more normal relationship with Iran is desirable, and we're prepared for it. But such a relationship is not possible so long as Iran attacks neutral ships, threatens its neighbors, supports terrorism and refuses to end the bloody war with Iraq," he said.
Fitzwater, during a 25-minute meeting with reporters that began at 1:15 a.m. PDT, said the Navy had "identified, photographed and exploded" mines in the area where the Roberts was damaged.
1st Incident Since September
The Roberts incident was the first involving Iran and the United States since the Navy seized and sank the Iran Ajr, a mine-laying vessel, last September. In October an Iranian oil platform was destroyed in a Navy attack in response to the Iranian mining activities.
Monday's naval clashes between the United States and Iran occurred as Iraq intensified pressure against Tehran in an apparent attempt to break the deadlock in the 7 1/2-year-old gulf war.
Heavy fighting was reported along the Faw Peninsula following an Iraqi attack there. Iran's official government radio claimed the U.S. attack was in support of the Iraqi offensive.
In late February, Iraq and Iran resumed their so-called war of the cities, with each side hitting the other's capital with missiles.
It was Iran's decision to attack ships from Kuwait--a country not actively fighting in the war but sympathetic to Iraq--that first brought the U.S. task force into the gulf. U.S. Navy ships have escorted reflagged Kuwaiti tankers since last July.
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall contributed to this story from Manama, Bahrain.
THE ACTION IN THE PERSIAN GULF 1 Last Thursday, 5:10 p.m--Iranian-planted mine cripples U.S. Navy frigate Samuel B. Roberts.
2 Monday, 8 a.m.--U.S. warships destroy Iranian oil platforms at Sassan and Sirri.
3 11:46 a.m.--Iranian gunboats attack Willi Tide, U.S.-owned oil field supply ship; it is slightly damaged.
4 Noon--Iranian missile boat Joshan approaches U.S. warships near Sirri, is destroyed by missiles from a U.S. frigate and cruiser.
5 1:26 p.m.--Iranian speedboats fire at Panamanian-flagged ship and U.S.-operated oil platform in Mubarak oil field, setting platform afire. British tanker also attacked and set ablaze.
6 2:26 p.m.--Three Iranian speedboats fire on small craft near Mubarak oil field. American A-6 bomber destroys one, badly damages other two.
7 3:32 p.m.--Iranian frigate Sahand fires on U.S. A-6 bombers. Three A-6s return fire, and U.S. destroyer Joseph Strauss hits Sahand with Harpoon missile, leaving it ablaze.
8 5:18 p.m.--Iranian frigate Sabalan, in same area as Sahand, fires on American A-6, which disables ship with laser-guided bomb.
Source: Defense Department