U.S. Navy to remain in Bahrain despite unrest

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

ABU DHABI The U.S. Navy has pledged to maintain deployment of its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.

U.S. officials said Central Command, responsible for the U.S. military presence in the Gulf and Middle East, has relayed to Bahrain that the Fifth Fleet will remain based in Manama. The pledge was relayed amid rising Islamic unrest against the U.S. military presence in the kingdom.

But officials said the U.S. naval presence has declined sharply over the last four months. They said about 3,000 U.S. service members have been deployed in Bahrain while the United States and its allies have withdrawn the lion's share of their fleets from the war in Iraq.

Last week, insurgents hurled a firebomb at a Bahraini police vehicle in which six officers were injured, Middle East Newsline reported.

"The U.S. Navy has been in Bahrain in larger and smaller numbers over the last five decades and we will remain with the headquarters here for as long as I can imagine," Vice Admiral Timothy Keating, the outgoing commander of the Fifth Fleet, told a news conference at Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama on Sunday. "We have 2,500 to 3,000 navy folks throughout Bahrain now and although we aren't going to get bigger we want to be able to respond to crises around the world."

Officials said Bahrain, despite rising anti-government unrest, remains intent to maintain the U.S. military deployment in the kingdom.

Keating said the naval strength of the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf will fluctuate in accordance to military needs in the surrounding Middle East and south Asia. But the commander said an unspecified minimum presence will remain in the Gulf.

"We don't want to be predictable," Keating said. "We want to be able to to respond to crises around the world and we will want to maintain a certain level of presence. The numbers will fluctuate, but interest will remain. But the constancy and the continual interest in activity around the Gulf will remain the same."

Keating, who leaves Bahrain on Tuesday after 20 months in his position, said the coalition has deployed 50 naval vessels in the Gulf, which continue to search for oil smuggled from Iraq as well as Al Qaida and other Islamic insurgents. He said that at the height of the war against Iraq the naval presence reached 180 vessels.

"We may have less ships now but we have the same number of missions continuing in the global war against terrorism," Keating said.

Keating, nominated by President George Bush to be director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be succeeded by Vice Admiral David Nichols. Officials said Nichols will arrive in Bahrain over the next week.

The outgoing commander said he has not seen any unusual military activity from neighboring Iran. Teheran has warned of an imminent U.S. attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

"I have seen no military activity from Iran that has been unusual," Keating said. "They go out, they exercise. They have the freedom of navigation of the high seas as we do, and they use that. They have a fairly sophisticated naval capability so we watch them."

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