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MANAMA (Reuters) - The U.S. navy began war games on Iran's doorstep on Thursday, navy officials said, a day after a large flotilla of U.S. ships entered the Gulf in a dramatic daytime show of military muscle.
The group includes two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, whose presence adds to the pressure on the Islamic Republic to abandon its own nuclear ambitions, which the West says are an attempt to develop atomic weapons.
Iran, already under U.N. sanctions for enriching uranium, says its plans are for energy purposes only.
Asked if any of the American ships carried atomic weapons, a U.S. navy spokesman said the United States routinely did not comment on whether its warships were equipped with nuclear arms.
On the same day the U.S. ships entered the Gulf, skirting Iran's coast as they passed the Gulf's narrowest point, the U.N.'s atomic agency released a report saying Iran was continuing to defy world demands to stop enriching uranium.
The agency's report opens the way for tougher sanctions.
"The Stennis is conducting flight operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nimitz is conducting an air defense exercise. Bonhomme Richard is conducting replenishment at sea," navy Media Operations Officer Denise Garcia told Reuters.
The USS John C. Stennis, USS Nimitz, and the USS Bonhomme Richard are part of the group of nine ships that entered the Gulf on Wednesday, sending oil prices higher as jittery markets eyed possible tensions in the oil shipping hub.
Oil prices have continued to rise, hitting a nine-month high above $71 on Thursday.
The ships, carrying about 17,000 personnel and 140 aircraft will take part in war drills over the next two weeks, the group's leader Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn said on Wednesday, adding that the drills would include exercises to defend against air, surface and submarine threats.
Their aim is to reassure allies of the U.S. commitment to regional stability, he said.
Iran has blamed foreign forces for causing regional instability, and on Wednesday said it would give a "powerful answer" to enemies.
U.S. and Iranian ambassadors are due to meet on Monday in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq, where the United States has accused Iran of fomenting violence. Iran denies the accusations.
The passage of the U.S. ships through the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow channel in the Gulf and major oil shipping lane, was the largest such move in daylight hours since the 2003 Iraq war.
Most U.S. navy ships transit the straits at night, so as not to attract attention, and rarely in large numbers.