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AMERICA IN THE GULF. Navy under the gun. US unlikely to regain low profile in Gulf

The successful passage of the reflagged Kuwaiti gas carrier Gas Prince through the Gulf yesterday marked a small triumph for the troubled United States Navy escort mission. But questions remain about whether the US warship escorts will ever be tolerated by Iran, and when, if ever, the US military presence in the Gulf will be able to return to a low-key, normal routine.

The escort operation offers Iran a convenient - and symbolic - target, as regional tensions reach a new high after Friday's tragedy in Mecca.

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Yesterday, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was quoted by the Iranian news agency as saying that he holds the US responsible for the violence in Mecca, and that Iran would deal with the US ``at an opportune time.''

Analysts here say that, as long as the Iran-Iraq war continues, Iran will persist in attempts to harass Gulf shipping and the US escort operation. This includes using its most recent, effective tactic - planting mines in key shipping lanes.

``As long as the war is going on, I don't see why they would ever stop,'' a shipping industry source says. ``It is probably the best thing they have got going in the `tanker war' for a long time.''

After 402 people, including 275 Iranian pilgrims, died during a political demonstration Friday in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, other Iranian leaders vowed to seek revenge by attacking US forces in the Gulf, increasing the danger of direct military confrontation.

In anticipation of a possible Gulf conflict, market analysts say, international oil prices rose yesterday to just under $21 a barrel, and gold prices jumped by $10.75 an ounce, to $473.25.

Meanwhile, Iran's Revolutionary Guards announced that beginning today they will hold three days of naval maneuvers in Gulf waters under the code name Martyrdom.

The exercises, first announced weeks ago, were originally seen by observers here as Iran's way of issuing a mild military threat to the US Navy, while not actually engaging US forces. But given widespread anti-US anger in Iran after the Mecca tragedy, they say, the exercises could become more threatening.

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Iran charges that in Mecca, Saudi security forces operating under US orders fired on Iranian pilgrims. The US says charges of its involvement are baseless. Saudi Arabia says most of the deaths were caused by panicked Iranians who crushed their fellow pilgrims in a stampede outside the Grand Mosque.

These developments came just as the US Navy seemed determined to overcome recent setbacks and get on with the business of protecting Gulf sea lanes. But now, analysts say it is unlikely that the US can settle back into low-key operations.

The Navy's Middle East Force had operated quietly from facilities at Bahrain since the late 1940s. But ever since the Iraqi missile attack on the USS Stark, diplomats note, the US naval mission has been under a glaring spotlight. The Stark incident and the US decision to protect reflagged Kuwaiti tankers politicized the US military presence and increased its symbolic importance both to Iran and the US, analysts say.

The slightest setback, they note, will be viewed as a defeat for the US.

The Navy's stature suffered when the supertanker Bridgeton struck a mine July 24 on its first escorted trip. The US was embarrassed further by the disclosure that, despite a 17-ship armada in the region, it had no minesweeping capability.

Unable to persuade any allies to participate in a multinational mine-clearing effort, the US has been left to undertake the Gulf mission alone.

A further setback occurred July 30 when a US Navy helicopter crashed into the side of the Navy's Gulf command ship, the USS LaSalle. Four servicemen died in the incident.

``In the last few weeks it seems to have been one disaster after another,'' a Western diplomat says. ``It raises the spector of [the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in] Lebanon again. Can the US cope or will they end up in the Gulf with egg on their faces?''

The US Navy appeared not to be taking any chances Saturday morning when the Gas Prince secretly left a Kuwaiti port under escort to begin its 550-mile return trip.

The Gas Prince, loaded with a volatile cargo of 40,000 tons of liquefied petroleum gas bound for customers in Japan, had been expected to convoy with the supertanker Bridgeton. But loading delays caused the Bridgeton to fall behind schedule.

It is unclear when the Bridgeton escort will get under way. Some reports have suggested that it may not occur before the US Navy begins helicopter minesweeping operations later this week.

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