Two US aircraft carriers reach Gulf waters

Date: 05-23-07

MANAMA (AFP) - The USS John C. Stennis and USS Nimitz aircraft carriers and their strike groups entered Gulf waters to support troops in Iraq and conduct training exercises, the US Navy said Wednesday.

"The carriers and amphibious strike groups and their associated forces will conduct missions in direct support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and will also perform Expeditionary Strike Force training," the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet said.

In January, Washington said it planned to keep two carrier battle groups in the Gulf for months -- the first such deployment since 2003.

Tension is high over Iran's controversial atomic energy programme. Washington suspects Iran is secretly trying to develop a nucLear weapon, a charge Tehran strongly denies.

The navy said the training exercises planned for the strike groups were not related to the Iran standoff.

"We are conducting this training in order to gain valuable experience across a wide spectrum of naval disciplines," the statement said.

"The timing of this exercise is determined by the availability of forces, and is not connected to events in the region. This exercise is not directed against any nation."

The Nimitz is replacing the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But Mustafa Alani, a senior analyst with the UAE-based Gulf Research Centre, said it was no coincidence the US ships arrived on the same day the UN nuclear watchdog was due to issue a report expected to show Iran continuing to defy UN demands that it stop enriching uranium.

"The aim of this step, which coincides entirely with the end of the UN deadline, is to send a clear message to Iran that a military option is available to Washington," Alani told AFP by telephone.

Alani said he doubted the United States is planning an all-out war with Iran, but is rather gathering its forces in the Gulf in the event of a sudden outbreak of conflict.

"The Americans are convinced they must assemble a certain amount of power to deal with a suprise conflict, even though in my view a decision to go to war has not been taken," he said.

A sudden, unexpected outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Iran could be triggered by events in Iraq, where both states have competing interests, Alani added.

Non-proliferation expert Gary Samore said from New York that "obviously the bottom line is that they haven't accepted a suspension of enrichment. That's all the Security Council needs to take further sanctions."


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