Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Top Admiral Details U.S.-Iranian Encounter

Five Iranian high-speed attack craft accosted a trio of U.S. Navy warships Sunday in the strategically critical Strait of Hormuz, the U.S. 5th Fleet commander said, prompting evasive maneuvers by the U.S. ships and reportedly bringing them close to opening fire. No one was hurt and the Iranian boats withdrew before any shots were fired, but Pentagon and White House officials stressed Monday that the incident was dangerously provocative in the choke point through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil passes. The cruiser Port Royal, the destroyer Hopper and the frigate Ingraham were in international waters on their way into the Persian Gulf around 8 a.m. local time Sunday when the Iranian encounter occurred, said Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, speaking to Pentagon reporters via a satellite video uplink Monday afternoon.
USS Port Royal (CG 73)
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps attack boats approached the U.S. ships’ starboard bows, Cosgriff said, and broke left and right into two groups on either side of the Americans, even passing between the warships as they steamed in formation. The boats passed between 200 and 500 yards of the U.S. surface group, and Iranian sailors from two boats dropped “white, box-like objects” that floated in the water ahead of the Ingraham, Cosgriff said. But the U.S. captains ordered evasive turns and the three warships passed clear of the objects in the water. Cosgriff confirmed that the Iranian sailors also sent a hostile radio message to the U.S. crews that translated approximately to, “we’re closing with you, and your ships are going to explode.” As the U.S. warships and Iranian boats maneuvered near each other, U.S. commanders warned the Iranians with radio messages and blasts of the ships’ horns. At least one ship’s captain reported he was about to open fire when the Iranians broke off, Cosgriff confirmed.
USS Hopper (DDG 70)
The incident was over after about 30 minutes, Cosgriff said, when the Iranian attack boats returned in the direction from which they had come. The encounter was “needlessly provocative,” he said. “I am concerned with unnecessary and irresponsible maneuvering by the part of those patrol boats, in international waters in an area traversed by numerous ships every day. When they act that way it raises the risk of a miscalculation on their part that somebody might take it too far when we are stepping through our procedures,” Cosgriff said. He added that he was “very proud” of the way the U.S. crews behaved in the situation. Cosgriff didn’t speculate what the white boxes were or say what weapons he thought the Iranian boats were carrying, although he did state specifically they were not armed with anti-ship missiles. All told, the encounter was “more serious than we’ve seen,” Cosgriff said, and pointed out that the three U.S. ships had passed an Iranian warship during their transit of the Strait of Hormuz and that encounter had been “correct.”
USS Ingraham (FFG 61)
The Pentagon and the White House both criticized Iran over the incident, but their language seemed designed to keep from further escalating tensions in the Gulf. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell called the incident “perplexing,” and a White House statement said it was “provocative” and called for the Iranians to stop. The Revolutionary Guards Corps is a semi-autonomous paramilitary arm of the Iranian government that has been officially declared a terrorist group by the U.S.; it was blamed for supplying weapons to Iraqi insurgents, and in March 2007, its naval arm captured 15 British sailors and marines in the northern Persian Gulf. Iran exploited the troops in a propaganda coup before releasing them to the U.K. two weeks later. The Strait of Hormuz encounter took place two days before President Bush’s planned trip to the Middle East, underscoring the issue of U.S.-Iranian relations that Bush hoped to address with leaders in Israel, Kuwait, Egypt and other Arab states.

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