By PAULINE JELINEK, The Guardian, March 5, 2008
WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. Navy switched out warships patrolling in the Mediterranean on Wednesday, maintaining a show of strength during a period of tensions with Syria and political uncertainty in Lebanon.
Officials said it was a routine, planned deployment but it was an action sure to draw attention in the Mideast, where an announcement on U.S. presence last week caused a political stir in Lebanon.
The USS Cole guided missile destroyer and support ships passed through the Suez Canal at midday Wednesday, heading from the Mediterranean Sea into the Red Sea, canal officials said. In Washington, a Navy official said the Cole had been relieved by the guided missile destroyer USS Ors and the guided missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea.
Both the canal official and navy official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of talking about ship movements.
``It's a sign of our commitment to stability in the region ... a stabilizing force and commitment to our allies,'' Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said Wednesday of the U.S. presence.
``I think it prevents miscalculations,'' he told Pentagon reporters.
The deployment of the USS Cole had sparked criticism from Hezbollah and from pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon, who are locked in a political standoff with the pro-U.S. government. It also sparked criticism from Syria.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has said his government did not ask for the ships and that they were not in territorial waters. Some in his coalition said they were surprised by the deployment.
Syria has said the deployment threatened security in the region. Syria's foreign minister warned the U.S. it cannot impose its own solutions to the political crisis in Lebanon. Syria's foreign minister and the pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon also reminded Washington of the bloody consequences of its 1980s intervention in Lebanon.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week that the deployment should not be viewed as threatening or in response to events in any single country in that volatile region.
The decision to send the ships appeared to be a not-too-subtle show of U.S. force in the region as international frustration mounts over a long political deadlock in tiny, weak Lebanon. The U.S. blames Syria for the impasse, saying Syria has never given up its ambitions to control its smaller neighbor.
The presidential election in Lebanon has been delayed 15 times. It is now pushed back to March 11.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe had called the deployment of the Cole ``a show of support for regional stability'' and said President Bush is concerned about the situation in Lebanon.
Associated Press writer Salah Nasrawi in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.