U.S. navy drills in the Gulf come amid Iran tensions

MANAMA Wed Mar 28, 2007 6:50am EDT

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MANAMA (Reuters) - Mounting tensions between Iran and the West have accelerated war games the U.S. navy is conducting in the Gulf, a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet said on Wednesday.

A second U.S. aircraft carrier began exercises in the Gulf on Tuesday -- the first time two such vessels have been sent to patrol Gulf waters since the U.S.-led war on Iraq in 2003.

The U.S. exercises come amid rising tension with Iran over its nuclear program and its capture of British sailors.

"The planning accelerated in conjunction with what was going on, but it was absolutely not the sole determinant ... We are here exercising every day," said Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in the Gulf island of Bahrain.

"If Iran takes away a message from this, that's up to them... Frankly the message is a regional one that reinforces that our presence is to provide stability and security."

Iran captured 15 British military personnel last week, accusing them of illegally entering Iranian waters, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair has warned that the dispute would enter a "different phase" unless they are freed.

Britain said on Wednesday that satellite data showed the sailors and marines were seized 1.7 miles inside Iraqi waters.

SHORT NOTICE

Iran, which began a week of drills using submarines and small missile-carrying ships in the Gulf last Thursday, said via state television that it was not concerned about the U.S. naval exercises, but was watching them closely.

"Our exercise is absolutely a short notice exercise. We didn't give a lot of advance warning to it, but it's part of our readiness to be able to conduct these types of exercises," Aandahl told Reuters.

Aandahl said only U.S. ships were involved in the drills, which include anti-submarine, anti-surface and mine warfare exercises. The decision to begin exercises, which are expected to continue for a "few days," was made in the last two weeks.

The Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain is the command center for the roughly 30 U.S. and 15 allied ships patrolling regional waters, including areas right on Iran's doorstep.

In February Iran said it had tested missiles that could sink "big warships" in the Gulf.

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