Fifth Fleet commander warns of 'unprecedented tension' in Gulf

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

ABU DHABI Iran may pose a greater security threat to the strategic Persian Gulf than does Al Qaida, warned the U.S. Fifth Fleet commander at a news conference in Bahrain.

"We consider this moment in time unprecedented in terms of the amount of insecurity and instability that is in the region," U.S. Fifth Fleet commander Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh said.

"Although our presence in the Arabian Gulf is for defensive and not offensive purposes, the U.S. will take military action if ships are attacked or if countries in the region are targeted or U.S. troops come under direct attack," Walsh added.

At a news conference on Feb. 19 in Manama, Walsh said Iran could pose a greater threat to Gulf security than Al Qaida, Middle East Newsline reported. The naval commander said Iran's frequent military exercises were meant to provoke tension in the region and threaten the closure of the Straits of Hormuz, which contains about 40 percent of global oil shipping.

"When you look at the recent Iranian exercises, in the last nine months, you see the open display and the implication of the use of mines," Walsh said. "You also see and hear concerns and threats about the closure of the Strait of Hormuz."

"What is different today to a year ago has been the number of exercises and the proximity of those exercises to the Strait of Hormuz," Walsh said.

Walsh's assertion represented the clearest signal of U.S. alarm concerning Iran's threat to the region. Only two weeks earlier, leading U.S. naval commanders said the Iran Navy was acting with caution and seeking to avoid a conflict with the United States.

Officials said the United States has begun to highlight the Iranian threat as Teheran continues to test and deploy a range of medium- and intermediate-range missiles. They said the U.S. military was countering this by sending two carrier strike groups to the Gulf, ready to assure shipping through the Straits of Hormuz.

"An increasingly belligerent Iran thinks it can control, threaten and intimidate," U.S. Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for the Middle East Mark Kimmitt said.

Officials said the Defense Department has been quietly preparing for confrontation with Iran that would focus on control of the Gulf. They said naval commanders, including Walsh, were being promoted to senior positions in Central Command and the Pentagon.

"There is a historic tension between Iran and the region and we recognize that," Walsh said. "Iran is the concern that we all have at the moment."

"There is a build-up of troops and that is in response to a renewed commitment on the part of both national and international leadership to try and bring security and stability to Iraq," Walsh said.

Walsh has been scheduled to leave his post at the end of February. He has been appointed vice chief of naval operations and would be replaced by Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff.

"It is not as if we are out looking for a fight, we are not patrolling Iranian waters," Walsh said. "We have assumed a defensive posture here to reassure our friends and provide stability in the region. We have not experienced the targeting of U.S. troops.

Walsh acknowledged GCC fear of a U.S. military build-up in the region. He said Gulf Arab allies were concerned that the United States would attack Iran and then withdraw its military presence from the Gulf.

"Having lived in the region since 2005, I can understand the concerns and the skepticism of those who live here," Walsh said. "I think what they want is long-term assurances. What they don't want is offensive action meant to inflict some sort of damage to Iran and then a retreat because they will live with the consequences of any actions that we take."

Copyright 2007 East West Services, Inc.

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