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U.S. Forces in Mideast Put on Alert for Attack

THE WORLD

June 23, 2001|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — U.S. forces in the Middle East were put on highest alert Friday after intelligence reports suggested that terrorists might attack American military or civilian targets in the region, defense officials said.

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. regional military command for the Middle East, canceled a Marine exercise in Jordan, ordered all Navy ships to sea for safety and directed Army and Air Force personnel to observe special security precautions, an official said.

As the forces moved to so-called Threat Condition Delta, the State Department warned American civilians in the region that there was a growing risk to them and to U.S. facilities and property.

The alert, one of a series in recent months, came after U.S. authorities received information that associates of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden had begun activities that indicated an attack might be imminent, officials said.

The alert also came a day after U.S. officials indicted 14 suspects in the 1996 bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. One official said it was not immediately clear that the new threat was related to this development.

The intelligence that led to the alert was "credible terrorist threat information," one official said, although he said the information did not identify a specific target or the exact time of any attack.

All of the officials requested anonymity because they are not allowed to speak publicly about the U.S. response to security threats.

The alert underscored again how a series of deadly attacks in recent years has led military authorities in the region to believe that their personnel are at constant risk.

In October, 17 sailors were killed when the U.S. guided-missile destroyer Cole was attacked by suicide bombers in the Yemeni port of Aden. In August 1998, 224 people were killed and about 5,000 injured when bombers struck U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The bombing of the Dhahran barracks killed 19 U.S. servicemen and led the military to undertake a major overhaul of security procedures.

In response to the latest threat, several Navy minesweeping ships were ordered out of port in Bahrain, headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf area.

The aircraft carrier Constellation and its battle group were already at sea, officials said.

A contingent of 2,200 Marines operating as an amphibious ready group cut short training in Jordan, officials said. The Marines were being taken to their three ships, led by the amphibious assault ship Boxer.

The military orders a Delta alert only if it believes a specific threat against a specific target is considered likely. In such a situation, vehicles entering facilities are searched, packages are inspected, some roads are closed, and trips off base are limited.

The U.S. Central Command oversees a force that generally includes about 30 naval vessels, 175 aircraft and between 17,000 and 25,000 personnel. While the command's area of operation extends from northeastern Africa into Central Asia, most of the U.S. forces are concentrated in the Persian Gulf area, said Army Lt. Col. Rick Thomas, a Central Command spokesman in Tampa, Fla.

After a threat at the end of May, U.S. forces in Bahrain were put on their second-highest state of alert, called Threat Condition Charlie.

The United States subsequently moved FBI and Navy investigators from Aden to the Yemeni capital, Sana, for their safety. The FBI investigators, who were looking into the attack on the Cole, eventually left the country.

After the Cole bombing, the Navy ordered ships to avoid the Suez Canal because of safety concerns.

The indictment in the Khobar Towers bombing found that "elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised members of Saudi Hezbollah" engaged in preparing the attack, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said in announcing the charges.

While the indictment did not name or charge any members of the Iranian government, the United States has long accused Iran's Islamic government of backing international terrorism.

On Friday, both Iran and Saudi Arabia criticized the indictments. Iran denied that it had been involved in the blast. In Yemen, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz declared that the U.S. was wrong to issue indictments in a case that he said was his country's alone to prosecute.

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Violence: Jewish settlers step up pressure on Israel to retaliate for Palestinian attacks.

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