Nine US Warships Enter Gulf in Show of Force
    By Mohammed Abbas

    Nine U.S. warships carrying 17,000 personnel entered the Gulf on
Wednesday in a show of force off Iran's coast that navy officials said was
the largest daytime assembly of ships since the 2003 Iraq war.

    U.S. Navy officials said Iran had not been notified of plans to sail the
ships, which include two aircraft carriers, through the Straits of Hormuz, a
narrow channel in international waters off Iran's coast and a major artery
for global oil shipments.

    Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn, who is leading the group, said the ships would
conduct exercises as part of a long-planned effort to reassure regional
allies of U.S. commitment to Gulf security.

    "There's always the threat of any state or non state actor that might
decide to close one of the international straits, and the biggest one is the
Straits of Hormuz," he told reporters on board the USS John C. Stennis
aircraft carrier.

    "What is special about this is that you have two strike groups.
Everybody will see us because it is in daylight."

    Most U.S. ships pass through the straits at night so as not to attract
attention, and rarely move in such large numbers.

    Navy officials said the decision to send a second aircraft carrier was
made at the last minute, without giving a reason.

    The group of ships, carrying about 140 aircraft scheduled to participate
in the exercises that will take place over the next few weeks, crossed at
roughly 0355 GMT.

    Tension between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear
ambitions and Iraq has raised regional fears of a possible military
confrontation that could hit Gulf economies and threaten vital oil exports.

    Show of Force

    On the way to the straits, a public announcement called on crew to
witness "some of the most powerful ships in the world," whose tight
formation against a backdrop of the setting sun created a dramatic image of
American naval might.

    The move comes less than two weeks after U.S. Vice President Dick
Cheney, speaking aboard the Stennis during a tour of the Gulf, said the
United States would stand with others to prevent Iran gaining nuclear
weapons and "dominating the region."

    On a visit to Abu Dhabi a few days later, Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad threatened "severe" retaliation if the United States attacked
his country, which is locked in a standoff with the United States over its
nuclear programme.

    He also urged Gulf countries to "get rid of" foreign forces, blaming
them for insecurity in the region.

    The United States accuses Iran of trying to produce nuclear weapons, and
has sought tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran. Iran says its nuclear
ambitions are for energy purposes only.

    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 by backing Shi'ite militia there, and of providing
weapons and the technology for roadside bombs. Iran has denied the

    Last month, the U.S. Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain conducted its biggest
crisis response drill and in March, the U.S. navy conducted its biggest war
drills in the Gulf since 2003.

    This time the drills will involve air defense exercises and boarding
other ships posing as suspect vessels, navy officials said. The vessels will
also drop off 2,200 marines in Kuwait to take part in unspecified natural
disaster exercises, they said.

    "If the Straits of Hormuz were to be closed or there were to be some
conflict there, the shipping rates would go sky high," Quinn said.