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Oil Ship Attacks Echo 1980s Tanker War 06/15 09:17

   DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Mysterious attacks on oil tankers near 
the strategic Strait of Hormuz this week show how one of the world's crucial 
chokepoints for global energy supplies can be easily targeted, 30 years after 
the U.S. Navy and Iran were entangled in a similarly shadowy conflict called 
the "Tanker War."

   While the current tensions are nowhere near the damage done then, it 
underscores how dangerous the situation is and how explosive it can become.

   The so-called "Tanker War" involved American naval ships escorting reflagged 
Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf and the strait after Iranian mines 
damaged vessels in the region. It culminated in a one-day naval battle between 
Washington and Tehran, and also saw America accidentally shoot down an Iranian 
passenger jet, killing 290 people.

   U.S. estimates suggest Iran attacked over 160 ships in the late 1980s 
confrontation.

   "We need to remember that some 30% of the world's crude oil passes through 
the straits," said Paolo d'Amico, the chairman of the oil tanker association 
INTERTANKO. "If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire 
Western world could be at risk."

   So far, six oil tankers have been damaged in suspected limpet mine attacks, 
explosives that can be magnetically stuck to the side of a ship. The first 
attack happened May 12 off the coast of the Emirati port city of Fujairah and 
targeted four tankers. Thursday's apparent attack damaged two other tankers.

   The U.S. has blamed Iran for both incidents, offering a video on Friday it 
said showed Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces spirit away one mine stuck to a 
tanker that didn't explode in Thursday's assault. For its part, Iran denies 
being involved and calls the allegations part of America's "Iranophobic 
campaign" against it.

   Meanwhile, the owner of the tanker Kokuka Courageous said its sailors saw 
"flying objects" before the attack, suggesting it wasn't damaged by mines and 
contradicting the U.S. military.

   Confusion pervaded the start of the "Tanker War" as well. 

   That conflict grew out of the bloody eight-year war between Iraq and Iran in 
the 1980s, which began when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. The war 
killed 1 million people. The U.S. supported Saddam by providing intelligence, 
weaponry and other aid.

   Iraq first targeted Iran's shipping and by 1984 attacked Kharg Island, a 
crucial oil-tanker-loading terminal for Iran. Its air force also attacked ships 
in the Persian Gulf. After the Kharg attack, Iran began a concerted campaign to 
attack shipping in the region.

   Iraq ultimately would attack over 280 vessels to Iran's 168, according to 
the U.S. Naval Institute.

   The Iran's mining campaign began in earnest in 1987. At night, the 
Revolutionary Guard would drop mines from vessels disguised as traditional 
dhows, which ferry cargo around the waters of the Persian Gulf.

   As attacks targeted Kuwaiti oil tankers, the U.S. ultimately stepped in to 
protect them. The Soviet Union also volunteered.

   While mines represented a small number of the attacks, their psychological 
impact grew. They also allowed Iran to attack its foes without having to take 
direct responsibility.

   The mines were described as "God's angels that descend and do what is 
necessary," by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would later become president of 
Iran.

   Analysts say use of naval mines and bombs is a trend that continues today. 

   "Iran's strategy at sea particularly is based on disruption," said Dave 
DesRoches, a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies 
at the National Defense University in Washington. "They know they can't 
dominate. They have to disrupt."

   Ultimately, the U.S. tied Iran to the mining when it captured the Ajr, an 
Iranian ship loaded with mines in 1987. When the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a 
mine and nearly sank the next year, the Navy matched it to those seized from 
the Ajr.

   The attack on the Roberts sparked a daylong naval battle between Iran and 
the U.S., known as Operation Praying Mantis. American forces attacked two 
Iranian oil rigs and sank or damaged six Iranian vessels.

   Several months later, tragedy struck. The USS Vincennes, after chasing Guard 
vessels into Iranian territorial waters, mistook an Iran Air commercial 
jetliner for an Iranian F-14, shooting it down and killing all 290 people 
onboard.

   Thirty years later, events of the "Tanker War" still resonate in Iran. 

   A recent billboard put up in Tehran's Vali-e-Asr Square shows U.S. and 
Israeli ships afire and sinking, with captions in English, Farsi, Arabic and 
Hebrew reading: "We Drowned Them All."

   While the billboard is meant to show support for the Palestinians --- it 
prominently features Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque --- it came just days after the 
Fujairah attack.

   Around this time as well, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave an 
address to university students, who gave him a portrait of Nader Mahdavi, a 
Revolutionary Guard soldier killed in a U.S. attack amid the "Tanker War."

   "The supreme leader asked whose picture it was and I replied, 'Mahdavi,'" 
the semi-official ANA news agency quoted the student who gave the portrait to 
Khamenei as saying. "The supreme leader smiled and said, 'Excellent, very 
timely.'"


(KA)

 
 
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