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US tests Mideast waters - gingerly

The top story in world news this week was the mobilization of a multinational mine-sweeping operation to try to make the approaches to the Suez Canal and the waters of the Red Sea safe for shipping.

This follows more than 15 incidents of ship damage in the Red Sea.

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The sparseness of known facts about the incidents makes it a mystery story. The first ship to report damage from an unidentified cause in the Red Sea area was of Soviet registry, on July 9.

Suspicion has centered largely on Iran or Libya. A Libyan ship passed through the Red Sea and into the Suez Canal on July 6, and might have dropped the explosive device that damaged the Soviet cargo ship Knud Jespersen on July 9. Other Libyan ships have passed through the area since, but so have an average of some 60 ships every day of numerous registries.

The last outbreak of mining in the world occurred in March and April, when eight ships reported being damaged by floating mines in the sea approaches to Corinto, the main seaport on the Pacific side of Nicaragua. These were at first attributed to anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan rebels. It was later learned that the mines had been loaded in Honduras in an operation organized by the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

The US-sponsored operation was protested by many countries, including Britain. The Nicaraguan government took its case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which ruled 15 to 0 - including the American judges - that the US should cease the mining. The US government said it refused to recognize the court's jurisdiction. But the mining has not been resumed, so far as is publicly known.

Ships of Cuban registry, and of the registries of other countries associated in world affairs with the Soviet Union, are frequently in transit in the Suez-Red Sea area. Hence, it is conceivable, although unlikely, that the Red Sea operation was deliberately mounted from Cuba or some other Soviet-aligned country as a reprisal for the mining off Corinto.

The US went into Lebanon originally as part of an international peacekeeping force, along with the British, Italians, and French. But the US became increasingly the sponsor of the Maronite Christian faction in Lebanon and began shelling military positions held by rival Arab factions.

At that point the NATO allies pulled away politically. What began as a concerted peacekeeping operation ended up as a unilateral US intervention on behalf of the Maronites. The British, French, and Italians remained, but were more neutral among the Arab factions.

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This time the US has sent in its naval mine-sweeping units on the express invitation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two main riparian Arab countries. It is entering in the most careful coordination with two of its three partners from the Lebanon force - Britain and France. It has sent just the units that the Egyptians and Saudis want. There is nothing unilateral or assertive about this operation.

The US action in Lebanon began similarly but became an example of unilateral American policy assertion. The solo phase ended in ignominious withdrawal.

Two rules seem to have emerged from the Lebanon experience which are clearly being honored this time. The first is that for US intervention in the area to be acceptable and potentially successful, it must be at the request of the major Arab states. The second is that it must be in concert with the main US allies. It is inherent in these rules that the purpose of the intervention must be to sustain the interests of the Arabs and of the US allies.

So whoever dropped the mines (or whatever they were) into the Red Sea has unintentionally provided the US and its Western allies with an exercise in joint operations. It can be done - provided there is agreement on the purpose and on the means to be used. The lesson might come in useful on other occasions.

Meanwhile, we have on our evening television screens the pictures of Western mine-sweepers all working together to clear an international waterway. We also have a residual question as to whether the mining of Nicaraguan waters was such a bright idea after all. Did it give someone else the idea?

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