A Kuwaiti supertanker under U.S. Navy escort and flying the American flag hit a mine off a fortified Iranian island this morning and limped home with a hole in its port side.
The supertanker Bridgeton was en route with another tanker to take on a cargo of oil in Kuwait when it was hit 120 miles southeast of the oil-rich northern emirate.
Seconds after the explosion, Navy Lt. Richard Vogel radioed the destroyer Kidd, command ship of the U.S. Navy convoy, saying:
"We've been hit! We've been hit!"
'Difficult to Pinpoint'
In Washington, U.S. officials said it was hard to believe that anyone but Iran would have laid mines in the area, but the White House said the United States is not considering retaliation "at this time" for the attack because it is not certain who laid the device.
"At this point, we don't know who is responsible. A mine is the kind of thing that is very difficult to pinpoint," spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters at his daily news briefing.
After striking the mine, the Bridgeton, plying waters at a reduced speed of 11 m.p.h. and using pumps to control water gushing into the hull, docked near Kuwait's Al Ahmadi oil terminal about 7 p.m. (9 a.m. PDT), U.S. officials said.
The three U.S. warships providing escort to the tankers planned to anchor for the night in the vicinity.
Fitzwater said President Reagan was awakened about 2 a.m. by National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci and notified of the incident. Reagan received updates at least twice before he left for Camp David, Md.,
"I think the striking of this mine points out one of the major points that has been the basis of our policy, which is the almost indiscriminate danger that is in (the) gulf, to international shipping," the spokesman said.
Asked whether the mining incident will lead to a re-evaluation by the Administration of its policy, Fitzwater said: "Only the kind of continuing review that this policy is always under, but no special changes that I am aware of.
"A mine placed in the open waters could strike any ship going through there, belonging to any country, and I think the thing that this points up is that I'm glad we're there."
Fitzwater said that congressional leaders will be kept informed but that no consideration has been given to invoking provisions of the War Powers Act requiring formal notification.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said of the attack, "It's a hostile act, and the question is who committed it and whether it was aimed at our ships or our flag vessels or whether it was just a random mine."
In London, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher urged the United States to respond "very calmly," saying, "The whole strategy now is to de-escalate things . . . and to keep freedom of navigation going."
The incident set off immediate squabbling on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), along with Sens. Brock Adams (D-Wash.), Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), introduced a bill to stop the naval escort mission in six months unless the President, 40 days before the deadline, certifies the policy is in the national interest and Congress approves an extension.
Calling the policy "wrongheaded," Bumpers said, "If this mine had hit an American warship with a considerable loss of life, and I'm grateful it didn't happen, there will begin a clamor in this country to retaliate even though no one's fingerprints are on it.
"Iran has not taken credit for the mine. In all probability it was one of theirs. . . . As American lives are lost, possibly at the hands of F-14 and Phoenix missiles which we sold the shah, and Hawk missiles which we have in the past year delivered to the ayatollah, it would really be a strange set of circumstances for American lives to be lost at the hands of American weapons.
"What we have here is a policy that literally makes the American flag a shooting gallery, a very inviting shooting gallery."
Calling Bumpers' press release "inflammatory," Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said, "That type of rhetoric is not befitting the circumstances." In debating the issue, he said, "I urge our colleagues, let's do it with cool heads and serious minds, free of rhetoric of this type."
Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and Carlucci met with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, and afterward, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas said legislation on the policy today was inevitable but will not change the policy.
"One thing is for certain, when I woke up and learned a mine had been involved, I knew somebody would have a bill today to introduce. We all knew it would happen. Someone would have a press conference decrying American policy. I do believe that having discussed that briefly with Caspar Weinberger, it's not going to change our policy there."