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US resolve stays high in Gulf. Mission unchanged though naval force is reduced

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The withdrawal of four United States warships from the Gulf region is a routine adjustment that doesn't undercut US resolve to protect its commercial shipping here. That is the official US line, and one the Arab states of the Gulf seem to accept. Still, Iran is using the force reduction for propaganda purposes, suggesting on Radio Tehran that the US is retreating from the Gulf. ``After the defeat of its militaristic policy in the Persian Gulf, Washington is looking for a face-saving way to get out of this in-ternational waterway,'' Radio Tehran proclaimed Wednesday.

Last month's visit to the region by US Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci was in part designed to prevent any US ``friends'' on the Arab side of the Gulf from coming to such conclusions.

But what does concern the Saudis and Kuwaitis is the unresolved issue of whether US forces will eventually also protect neutral commercial ships under threat of unlawful attack in the Gulf's international waters - as France has announced it is prepared to do. The other naval powers in the region - including the US - have so far been cool to the idea, stressing that their missions are strictly limited to protecting only ships flying their own flag.

Just by their presence, the warships in the Gulf serve as a calming and protecting influence, which benefits all shipping in the vicinity. But such spillover protection hasn't prevented the Iranians from stepping up attacks this year against unescorted ships trading with Kuwaiti and Saudi ports.

The Iranians are not expected to gain tactical advantages as a result of the withdrawal of the four US warships.

As described by US Defense Department officials, the redeployment will permit the US Navy to lower marginally its high profile in the tense region. Also, the move will reduce the cost - $20 million per month by some estimates - of maintaining the large naval task force.

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