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U.S. aircraft carrier cruises toward tense Persian Gulf

Intent on preventing war between Iraq and Iran, the administration has ordered the aircraft carrier Nimitz to the Persian Gulf ahead of schedule, Pentagon officials said Friday.

The officials described the order as a warning to Iran against launching another round of air attacks on Iraq in violation of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over southern Iraq. It is the first direct U.S. military warning to Iran in recent years.At the same time, though, senior administration officials said the move was aimed at Iraq as well, reflecting concerns that Iran's border forays to bomb Iranian rebels could draw Iraq into an air war.

"It had very little to do with Iran and a lot to do with Iraq," one official said.

Iranian aircraft violated the zone on Monday when they attacked bases of Iranian rebels who operate from Iraq. In response, Iraqi aircraft also flew over the area. The flights have not been repeated since Monday, the officials said.

"The Iranians are flying, the Iraqis are flying, and we're warning both of them that it's not acceptable," one official said.

The use of an aircraft carrier to deter warlike moves by either nation illustrates the complexity of the U.S. role in the gulf. While restraining Iraq has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the United States has also been determined to prevent Iran from becoming a belligerent. And in recent weeks, Iran has figured centrally in U.S. policy.

Last week the French oil group Total said it would defy a U.S. ban on large investments in Iran and joined Russia and Malaysia in a $2 billion exploration and production agreement with Iran. This forced the administration to decide whether it will risk new tensions with its European allies by enforcing its sanctions.

In addition, the United States has portrayed Iran as a major military threat because of what Washington calls its campaign to build longer-range missiles and chemical weapons. That analysis is not shared by European allies.

Iran and Iraq are traditional adversaries and were at war from 1980 to 1988. They are still at loggerheads over several issues, including the repatriation of prisoners of war and the return of more than 100 planes that Iraq sent to Iran to avoid damage during the gulf war.

On Monday, Iranian F-4 fighters bombed military camps used by Iranian opposition groups in Iraq.