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The Pentagon acknowledged Tuesday that a North Korean freighter believed to be carrying Scud-C missiles for Iran or Syria has reached an Iranian port despite the intention of U.S. warships to find and challenge the vessel.

"We did not encounter the ship. I can't tell you why," Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams told reporters. "I can't say precisely why we didn't see it all the time."Williams argued that the search for the Dae Hung Ho was not the "highest priority" for the U.S. Navy vessels in the region, since it apparently was not headed for Iraq in defiance of the United Nations embargo.

The United States is authorized by international law and by U.N. sanctions against Iraq to intercept shipping that may be destined for Iraq or for a port where goods might be transhipped to Iraq.

But U.S. officials say they have little authority to divert a vessel containing cargo bound for Iran and perhaps Syria.

Williams said U.S. officials "don't know for certain" what cargo the ship is carrying, nor would he say whether it had begun to unload any cargo.

However, other officials have said they believe the ship is carrying medium-range missiles, which would fuel even further the arms race in the region.

The ship apparently hugged the coastline off the strategic Strait of Hormuz to reach the southern Iranian port, Williams said.

The spokesman said the destroyer USS Ingersoll earlier today challenged a second freighter, the Iranian-flagged Iran Salaam, which is in the Arabian Sea. He said it too has been monitored by the U.S. fleet because of its suspicious contents.

The ship was hailed, declared its cargo to be steel and drilling materials, and that it also was headed for Bandar Abbas, Williams said.

If either ship had sailed toward Iraq, he said, the U.S. Navy would have "taken other action," Williams insisted.

He said the Pentagon need not be embarrassed by the ability of the North Korean vessel to elude the U.S. Navy's 22 ships in the region, since the Navy wasn't focused on blocking its movement to Iran.

But pressed to explain why no action was taken against the Dae Hung Ho, Williams said there is no "embargo on ships to Iran. The maritime intercept operation is focused on Iraq."