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The Virginian-Pilot March 22, 2003

Navy ships seize boats carrying mines in Iraqi port

By Dale Eisman

WASHINGTON -- Navy ships in the Persian Gulf have headed off an attempt to mine the main entrance to Iraq's principal port, seizing three tugboats carrying more than 130 mines, the Pentagon disclosed Friday.

The seizure, the first action at sea in the new gulf war, came as Navy SEALs and Marines secured the port city of Umm Qasr after a brief battle with Iraqi forces. A defense official said control of the port will permit ships carrying food, medicine and humanitarian supplies to move those items ashore quickly. The supplies are critical to U.S. plans to reassure Iraqi civilians that Americans intend to rebuild the country once Saddam Hussein has been ousted.

The Pentagon did not release any information on what prompted the United States to board the tugboats or what forces carried out the seizure. Also unclear was whether the tugboat crews offered any resistance or whether any mines had been in place before the seizure.

The official said 68 mines were found on one tugboat, 50 on a second and 19 on a third boat. The seized mines included ``contact'' mines, which float on or near the water's surface and explode when struck, and ``influence'' mines, which are detonated by sound or vibration from ships passing nearby.

The boats and mines were seized on a busy waterway, where hundreds of small craft routinely zip about among warships and cargo vessels.

Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States is scouring the entire area with minesweeping ships and equipment. The Navy has four minesweepers stationed in Bahrain.

Myers said other weapons and military uniforms also were found on the boats. Iraq's Navy was essentially destroyed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Only a handful of patrol craft remain, along with perhaps 150 small boats, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington think tank.

Those vessels are not considered a serious threat to U.S. and British ships operating in the gulf, but could be used to lay mines. During the 1991 war, Iraqi mines nearly sank the cruiser Princeton and seriously damaged the amphibious ship Tripoli.

In the wake of those incidents, the Navy has struggled to upgrade its countermine capabilities. The service has purchased a fleet of about two dozen mine-hunting and mine-clearing vessels and converted the amphibious assault ship Inchon into a mine countermeasures command ship.

But the Inchon was crippled by an engine room fire in 2001 and later decommissioned. The Navy is in the process of leasing an Australian-built catamaran to serve as a countermine command ship. In a report last year, the House Armed Services Committee noted that deficiencies in mine warfare have been the subject of a series of reports by the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency. The committee pumped an additional $18 million into the Navy's budget for research and development of new countermine equipment.

A GAO report in May 2001 said, ``The Navy's current forces. . . are not effectively capable of breaching and clearing mines in very shallow water near the shore.''


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