Two defiant Iraqi oil tankers steamed farther away from their home ports in the Persian Gulf with U.S. Navy patrol vessels shadowing them Sunday, prompting American officials to threaten the use of force if the tankers violate international sanctions against Iraq.
The tankers, which ignored orders to halt as well as warning shots across their bows on Saturday, appeared to be several days away from their destination, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. He declined to identify what port they were heading for.
“We intend to enforce the sanctions, but we want to give them every opportunity to turn around and change course,” Fitzwater declared. “Our only concern is that they not off-load and violate the sanctions.”
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, visiting troops in the region, said he “wouldn’t want to speculate on what happens next” if the tankers attempt to violate the U.S.-enforced embargo on the shipment of goods to and from Iraq.
At the same time, Cheney warned Iraqi leaders against doing anything to provoke tens of thousands of U.S. troops massing along the Iraqi-Saudi border.
“Should Saddam Hussein be foolish enough to launch an attack on Saudi Arabia, we would be able to do a very effective job of making him pay us a bit of a price for that,” he said.
Cheney’s remarks did nothing to cool the rhetoric of confrontation that appeared to be increasing the prospects for armed conflict in the region. One Middle East expert compared it to “carrying a can of kerosene in one hand and smoking a cigar in the other.”
In Washington, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” that the United States should be prepared to use force against the Iraqi tankers.
“I think that’s what a blockade is all about,” he said. “You give people ample warning to stop and to be searched and to be checked out and then if they don’t, then of course you proceed to try and disable the ship. . . . You don’t have to try and sink the ship.”
Likewise, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) said he felt Congress would support such a move.
Nevertheless, it appeared U.S. officials were delaying any hostile action against the tankers, at least until the United Nations acts on a resolution designed to enforce sanctions against Iraq. As the United Nations considered the proposal, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz demanded that the international body condemn U.S. interdiction of Iraqi shipping.
The Iraqi minister accused the United States of “piracy and armed aggression on the high seas.”
President Bush left his Maine vacation home Sunday night and returned to Washington for a meeting--described by aides as “a status review"--to discuss the escalating Persian Gulf crisis. Among the many topics on the agenda, according to aides, was how the United States would respond to the Iraqi tankers currently under surveillance.
Meanwhile, inside the combat information center of this ship--which Cheney visited on Sunday--senior officers of the U.S. Joint Task Force carefully monitored the Iraqi tankers as they advanced south toward an armada of American warships waiting in the open waters of the Gulf of Oman.
On this ship as well as at many other installations visited by Cheney, there was an edginess among U.S. personnel who recognized the explosive potential of the current situation.
“It’s like a second Cold War--everyone’s just standing around here waiting for something to happen,” said a seaman named Ron, a crew member of the Long Beach-based destroyer David R. Ray now operating in the Persian Gulf. “I don’t think we’re going to start anything intentionally. I think if we do start anything, it will be because of an accident.”
He was permitted to talk to The Times on condition his full name not be printed.
The chances for a costly mistake were on the minds of many Americans who remembered two earlier mishaps in the Persian Gulf--the Iraqi attack on the guided missile frigate Stark in 1987 and the shooting down of an Iranian airliner in 1988 by the cruiser Vincennes.
“If we make an error, a lot of people pay a big price,” said an aviator aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Eisenhower.
According to officials, it was this sense of caution that prompted the frigates Reid and Bradley to back away from the Iraqi tankers after firing warning shots on Saturday.
In the eerie light of electronic screens inside the combat information center of the destroyer Scott, the ship’s skipper, Cmdr. Tom Corcoran, called the complex process of identifying friends from foes in the air “like being an air traffic controller in New York or Chicago. . . . It’s an enormous video game with life-or-death consequences.”
American Air Force ground crews recently told reporters that U.S. F-15 Eagle fighters had “locked on” Iraqi fighters with their weapons radar--a key step in the targeting process--before the Iraqi warplanes fled. American commanders Sunday refused to confirm such incidents.
There are dangers of miscalculation on the ocean’s surface as well, according to officials in the region. While ship traffic in the Red Sea is down 50% as a result of the crisis, small boats with uncertain intentions continue their travels unchallenged because they stay within the territorial waters of Egypt.
Aboard the destroyer Scott, a 10-man “boarding party” has been organized to climb aboard any suspicious ships that are stopped. The group has been provided with shotguns, pistols and a statement printed in Arabic, French and English.
“Avoid confrontation; do not interfere with U.S. forces,” the statement says. “If fighting starts in your area, drop to the deck with your hands outstretched and remain silent.”
Healy reported from aboard the La Salle and Fritz reported from Washington.