By PAULINE JELINEK, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a move to bolster military strength against Iran, 20 nations will stage an anti-mining exercise in Mideast waterways.
Defense Department press Secretary George Little said the large minesweeping exercise Sept. 16-27 is a defensive drill and is "not ... aimed to deliver a message to Iran."
But Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the route for one-fifth of the world's oil, in retaliation for international sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.
The upcoming exercise will focus on "a hypothetical threat from an extremist organization to mine the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf, although exercise activities will not extend into the Strait of Hormuz," U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
"This is a defensive exercise aimed at preserving freedom of navigation in the international waterways of the Middle East and aimed at promoting regional stability," Little told Pentagon reporters on Tuesday.
Word of the exercise follows Monday's announcement that a second aircraft carrier will be sent to the region in September — several months earlier than planned — to ensure there will be two carriers in the region through early next year. The Pentagon also recently doubled the number of minesweepers in the region. And it sent the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport dock recently retrofitted to become what is known as an afloat forward staging base.
The buildup comes amid a stalemate in talks over Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes and other nations fear is to develop a nuclear weapon.
The exercise will practice mine countermeasures in multiple waterways. It will demonstrate "the international community's ability to work together to ensure free and secure trade," said Gen. James Mattis, commander for the region.
"Of the approximately 40 bilateral and multilateral exercises we'll conduct this year, this exercise also represents the extensive cooperation we enjoy with our international partners — both in and outside the region — with mutual economic and security interest," Mattis said.
Officials declined to name the other nations participating, saying they should identify themselves.
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