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Navy staying out of trouble in gulf

Despite Iranian warnings for American ships to keep their distance, a senior U.S. Navy commander says neither side has come close to a confrontation in the Persian Gulf.

"In no case have we had what I would call a contentious passing with the Iranian forces," Rear Adm. John Nathman, commander of the USS Nimitz battle group, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.Tension has risen in the gulf, through which more than one-fifth of the world's oil supplies pass, since Iranian air attacks on Iranian opposition bases inside Iraq. The Sept. 29 raids violated a no-fly zone patrolled by the United States and its allies. Iraq sent up two fighters in pursuit, again violating the zone.

In response, Washington sent a seven-ship battle group led by the Nimitz to the gulf two weeks ahead of schedule. The ships arrived in the gulf on Sunday. Since then, Iran has twice accused the U.S. Navy of trying to spy on major naval exercises it began on Saturday.

Senior Iranian navy commanders said U.S. warships and reconnaissance planes came close to its forces twice on Tuesday, but withdrew both times after being warned.

A British warship also approached the exercises Wednesday, but moved away as well, Tehran radio said.

Nathman said, however, that although ships from both sides regularly come close to each other, there had not been a single confrontation with the Iranian forces. "Many of our ships come fairly close, by that I mean several thousands of yards. We see each other, but we go about our business and they go about theirs," he said from the Nimitz.

Nathman said the Iranian government's warnings gave a false impression of tension between the two forces. He also denied Iranian accusations that U.S. forces were trying to spy on the Iranian war games.

The Iranian exercises cover 15,000 square miles and involve more than 100 vessels. The U.S. Navy has 15 ships in the gulf. "It's absolutely not spying. We're both observing each other, that's the best description I can give. We're not being covert. In fact, we're being very overt about what we do," Nathman said.