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Middle East Oil Caldron Bubbles

US sees threat in buildup by Iran near shipping lanes.

THE Clinton administration is raising an alarm over what it calls a major Iranian military buildup near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway through which oil crucial to the world economy passes out of the Persian Gulf.

Clinton officials are also pushing friendly Gulf nations to increase military cooperation among themselves and continue to support a major United States military presence in the region.

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Iran has deployed 6,000 troops, anti-ship missiles, air-defense missiles, and chemical weapons near the strait, said Defense Secretary William Perry on Wednesday. ''It's a deployment of force beyond any reasonable defensive requirement and can only be regarded as a threat to shipping in the area.''

Mr. Perry, speaking at a news conference in Bahrain during a swing through the Gulf this week, did not elaborate on what kinds of chemical weapons the Iranians have allegedly deployed.

Overall, his comments represented a more serious US assessment of the Iranian buildup on several islands in the southern Gulf since it was first disclosed on Feb. 28 by Gen. John Shalikashvilli, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At that time, the Pentagon described the Iranian moves as ''primarily defensive.''

Perry's trip, which was to conclude today, included stops in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, oil-rich kingdoms that lie along the Gulf's western coast.

Administration officials say they believe the threat to those states is growing as Iraq and Iran build up their military forces and attempt to develop weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and biological arms.

To counter these efforts, Washington is pursuing a policy of ''dual containment.'' This calls for maintaining UN economic sanctions on Iraq and discouraging international trade with Iran, particularly in arms and other strategic materials. To that end, the administration banned US oil firms last week from helping Iran develop its energy resources, and it is pressuring Russia to cancel the sale of nuclear reactors to the Islamic republic.

Washington, meanwhile, has boosted the numbers of US ships and aircraft regularly deployed around the Gulf. The move came after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in October appeared to be girding for a second assault on Kuwait. Some 20,000 US servicemembers are now in the region. ''We intend to stay here and provide stability as long as needed,'' Perry told US and Kuwaiti servicemembers on Monday at an air base just east of Kuwait's border with Iraq.

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In Kuwait and off the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, the US has also pre-positioned brigade-size stocks of tanks and other equipment for rapid use by US forces dispatched to the Gulf during crises from the US or Europe. Perry wants to boost the number of pre-positioning sites to as many as five, and Qatar has agreed to accept one. Perry sought to persuade Saudi Arabia to sign an agreement, but the kingdom on Sunday merely renewed a promise that US forces could continue to have access to its air and naval bases.

The trip was also aimed at encouraging the Gulf Arab states to improve military cooperation and hold joint exercises. Perry has previously spoken of the need to improve such ties. But some analysts say boosting military cooperation among the Gulf Arab states will be difficult because of their own territorial and political disputes.

''Whenever they have a common interest in their survival, there is a remarkable amount of cooperation. But, in less stressful times, you are going to see them go their own ways,'' says Thomas McNaugher, a senior political scientist at Washington's RAND Corporation.

As part of his lobbying effort, Perry said he showed Gulf Arab leaders US spy-satellite photographs depicting the rebuilding by Iraq of military infrastructure destroyed by coalition forces in the 1991 Gulf War.

''I think it's clear that the Saudis concur in our assessment of the buildup in Iraq -- the continuing threat from Iraq -- and the necessity for having a unified coalition military capability for dealing with that,'' Perry said after meetings in Saudi Arabia.

During his tour, Perry also visited US military units deployed in the region. At a stopover on the USS Constellation, an aircraft carrier, Perry explained to crew members why they have spent almost four months cruising the Gulf. He said their ship ''conveys a powerful message of America's political resolve and America's military might.''

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