DUBAI - Ships packed with 17,000 sailors and Marines moved into the Persian Gulf on Wednesday as the U.S. Navy staged another show of military force off Iran's coast just days before direct U.S.-Iran talks in Baghdad.
The carrier strike groups led by the USS John C. Stennis and USS Nimitz were joined by the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard and its own strike group, which includes two landing ships carrying 2,100 members of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Aircraft aboard the two carriers and the Bonhomme Richard were to conduct air training while the ships ran submarine, mine and other exercises. The Navy has maintained its two-carrier presence since February when the Stennis arrived in the Mideast waters.
Both carriers, with about 80 warplanes apiece, are expected to remain in the region through the summer as part of the Bush administration's stepped-up military presence off Iranian shores.
The war games - which culminate in an amphibious landing exercise in Kuwait, just a few miles from Iran - are a clear warning to Tehran, coming just ahead of Iran's talks with Washington and also at a time when the United Nations contemplating further tightening its sanctions against Iran for its failure to halt nuclear enrichment.
"There's a link to both events," said Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, "the Americans are sending a message to Iran that they are not coming to the negotiating table weak, but with their military at Tehran's doorstep."
"Washington is also showing Iran that the U.S. military will act to defeat any Iranian war strategy of closing the straits, which Iran shares with Oman," Alani said.
U.S. and Iranian ambassadors are to meet Monday in Baghdad to discuss Iraq's security issues.
Tehran has objected to U.S. claims that Iran is supplying Iraqi Shiite militias with deadly roadside bombs that kill American troops in Iraq. The U.S. has also accused Iran of covertly developing nuclear weapons, but Iran has denied the charge, saying its nuclear program is peaceful.
The nine ships taking part in the maneuvers were already on patrol in Mideast waters outside the Gulf when they passed through the narrow Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday and began air and sea maneuvers in the Gulf.
Two-fifths of the world's oil is transported through the busy straits.
U.S. warships under 5th Fleet command patrol the Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.
"This training demonstrates our commitment to security and stability in the Gulf area and our commitment to regional partners," said Vice Admiral Kevin J. Cosgriff, commander of the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet.
Besides the Stennis, Nimitz and Bonhomme Richard, the war games bring together the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam and USS Princeton, the destroyers USS O'Kane and USS Higgins, and the landing ships USS Denver and USS Rushmore.
The Nimitz arrived in the region from its home port in San Diego, California, earlier this month, replacing the departing USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The U.S. Navy isn't publicly saying that the maneuvers are directed at Iran.
The timing of the exercise was determined by the availability of forces in the area of operations, said 5th Fleet spokesman Lt. John Gay.
Wednesday's drill was the latest in a series of American and Iranian war games. Iran conducted naval maneuvers in November and April 2006, while the U.S. Navy held a two-carrier exercise in March and a training operation in October.
America's Arab allies in the Persian Gulf have grown increasingly uneasy with the tough U.S. stance against Iran, fearing any outbreak of hostilities could bring Iranian retaliation. All lie within range of Iranian missiles.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, a loose alliance of Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, has called on all its members not to support any U.S. action against Iran, while Qatar and the Emirates have publicly prohibited the U.S. military from launching strikes on Iran from U.S. bases on their soil.
On a landmark visit to the Emirates this month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned of a tough retaliation if the United States attacked Iran. He also called on Gulf Arab states to eject the U.S. military and form a regional alliance with Iran - an offer that met no response.
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