Defense Secretary William Cohen on Friday ordered the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its escorting warships to skip a planned port call at Singapore to get to the Persian Gulf as quickly as possible, officials said.
The hurry-up is linked to U.S. warnings to Iran earlier this week not to repeat its cross-border air attacks into southern Iraq. The Clinton administration told Iran that its raids Monday - and a belated Iraqi air force response - violated a U.S.-enforced “no-fly” zone and could trigger U.S. retaliation.
Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Richard Bridges said Cohen ordered the Nimitz to skip the Singapore stop in order to arrive on station in the Gulf early. Navy officials said it would get there by mid-October, two weeks earlier than originally planned.
The prospect of escalating tensions in the Gulf - a shipping route for much of the world’s oil supplies - triggered a run-up in energy prices Friday. Crude oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange hit an eight-month high, gaining 99 cents to $22.76 a barrel. Precious metals prices also rose.
The Nimitz, a nuclear-powered carrier with dozens of F-18 fighter jets and other aircraft aboard, is in the South China Sea on a round-the-world deployment that began Sept. 1. It is escorted by several warships, including the guided-missile frigate USS Ford, plus the attack submarine USS Olympia.
The no-fly zone over southern Iraq is patrolled by U.S. Air Force planes based in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The restricted zone was created after the 1991 Gulf War to stop Iraqi government forces from crushing rebel groups.
On Monday, Iranian planes bombed bases in southern Iraq held by Iranian rebel groups. The next day the Clinton administration said it had put Iran on notice that, if its pilots again intrude into that air space, they risk getting shot down.
“We made it clear to Iran that flights such as the one they made on (Monday) complicate the enforcement of the no-fly zone,” Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.
At the White House, a National Security Council official said the United States suspects that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might use the Iranian attacks as an excuse to challenge the no-fly zone and to block U.N. weapons inspections. Earlier this week U.N. inspectors were stopped from visiting sites in Iraq.