WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy said Tuesday that it was sending the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in order to maintain two carriers in the region amid growing tensions with Iran over its alleged support of Iraqi insurgents.
The Enterprise Strike Group will provide "Navy power to counter the assertive, disruptive and coercive behavior of some countries, as well as support our soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan," the Navy said in its announcement, in an apparent reference to Iran.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the deployment of the Enterprise was part of a "scheduled swap of carriers as part of the routine deployment." Currently, the USS Stennis, which arrived in the Middle East in mid-February, and the USS Nimitz are operating in the region.
In March, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he didn't think there was "any expectation that we will have more than two carrier strike groups in the area." But Whitman wouldn't rule out keeping all three carrier task forces there.
The U.S. military added a second aircraft carrier earlier this year when tensions between Washington and Tehran peaked.
Vice President Dick Cheney announced the stepped-up presence while visiting the Stennis in May. "With two carrier strike groups in the gulf, we're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike," he said. "We'll keep the sea lanes open. We'll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats. We'll disrupt attacks on our own forces. We'll continue bringing relief to those who suffer, and delivering justice to the enemies of freedom. And we'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region."
The Bush administration has accused Iran of instigating Iraq's most intractable violence, particularly against American troops. The U.S. military has said that it's found Iranian-made explosively formed projectiles — which can penetrate armored vehicles — in Iraq, often launched by Shiite Muslim militias. And it said a group backed by the Iranian government had kidnapped and killed four American soldiers in a brazen attack in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala.
The U.S. hasn't had three aircraft carriers in the region since the Iraq war began in 2003. Indeed, the Navy has said its increased presence in the region has strained its resources. The Enterprise returned from its last deployment in November.
Sailors abroad the Enterprise are deployed for at least six months. In all, 7,500 soldiers will be part of the Enterprise team. The carrier departed from Norfolk, Va., on Saturday.