WASHINGTON — The battleship Iowa and two escort warships are steaming home from the Persian Gulf and another ship is scheduled to leave soon in the first real reduction of the U.S. fleet in the war zone between Iraq and Iran, the Pentagon announced today.
The movement of the Iowa and its escorts over the weekend cuts the U.S. naval force in and around the gulf to 25 vessels, Assistant Defense Secretary Richard L. Armitage told reporters.
He added that the helicopter carrier Okinawa will leave for home by the end of this month with its complement of mine-hunting helicopters.
But he stressed that the United States was not changing its policy of protecting U.S. flag merchant vessels in the region.
Protection to Continue
"Our policy remains the same. We will continue to protect U.S. flag ships, but we feel we are now able to provide the same level of protection with fewer ships," Armitage said at a briefing session.
He said that the Navy would continue to escort Kuwaiti tankers flying American flags through the gulf and that there were no current plans to extend U.S. protection to merchant ships which do not fly the American flag.
"That could change in the future. . . . I don't want to slam the door on anything," he said.
The Iowa, armed with long-range cruise missiles and carrying a crew of 1,500 men, left the Northern Arabian Sea over the weekend with the cruiser Ticonderoga and the destroyer Deyo, Pentagon officials said. They said the three ships will not be replaced in the gulf region.
Mine-Hunters Pull Out
The Okinawa, which carries RH-53 mine-hunting helicopters, will be replaced by a smaller Navy ship, the Trenton, which will carry only attack helicopters, Armitage said.
He said the mine-hunting helicopters were no longer needed because the United States and its allies have enough mine-hunting ships in the gulf and appear to have brought the threat of mines under control.
Armitage stressed that the number of U.S. warships in and around the gulf could change slightly from time to time. But he and other defense officials said a slightly reduced force was more economical to operate if it could do the same job.
$20 Million a Month
The Pentagon has been spending nearly $20 million a month above normal steaming costs to maintain the gulf region force, but that extra monthly cost has dropped to $15 million recently as Kuwait began supplying fuel to the U.S. ships without charge, Armitage said today.
Armitage also told reporters today that the Defense Department will send a delegation to Baghdad this week to discuss further safety measures to protect U.S. shipping from accidental attack by Iraqi warplanes.
The Navy said an Iraqi Badger bomber fired at least one air-to-ship missile in the vicinity of a U.S.-escorted tanker convoy last week although the missile apparently was not fired at the American ships.
Worry Over Iraqi Planes
"The flights of Iraqi Badgers gave us some concern," Armitage said. "We will send a team back to Baghdad to make sure we're singing from the same hymnal."
The United States sent a delegation to Iraq last year following a devastating missile attack on the U.S. frigate Stark by an Iraqi jet which killed 37 American sailors. Iraq said that attack was an accident, an explanation accepted by the United States.
The two countries have set up secret identification and communication procedures to reduce the danger of such incidents and Armitage said the American delegation to Baghdad would go over those procedures.