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AFP | October 30 2006

The United States will lead international naval maneuvers in the Gulf off Iran's west coast beginning Monday aimed at fighting weapons proliferation, a US State Department official said.

The war games come in the context of tensions over Iran's nuclear program and reports of possible terror threats against oil installations in the Gulf.

Australia, Bahrain, Britain, France, Italy and the United States will participate in the exercises that will simulate inspection of ships carrying illicit weapons-related materials, the official said.

Another 19 countries in the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) will take a minor part in the exercise.

There have been 24 PSI exercises since US President George W. Bush launched the initiative in May 2003, but it will be the first time an exercise is conducted in the Gulf and the first time countries in the Middle East will participate.

In addition to Bahrain's active role, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates will send observers to the mission.

"This is an exercise that will test our capacity to intercept illicit traffic," said Robert Joseph, US under secretary of state for arms control and international security.

The exercise will practice interdicting a "target vessel carrying materials useful to a nuclear weapon program," destined for a "country of proliferation concern in the region," a State Department official explained.

Although the official, who insisted on anonymity, did not mention Iran, the maneuvers come as the five powers of the United Nations Security Council mull a resolution to hit Iran with sanctions for ignoring a UN call to halt uranium enrichment.

The US and key European states believe Iran's enrichment program is designed to supply material for a nuclear weapon, while Tehran insists its fuel processing is for peaceful purposes.

The maneuvers also will come as Western naval forces in the Gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia said they were on alert for possible terror attacks in the region.

Officials in Saudi Arabia earlier said oil installations in the country were a "high-probability potential target", but tight security measures were in place.

"Coalition forces are taking prudent, precautionary measures and focusing maritime security operations in the Gulf on these possible threats," Lieutenant Commander Charlie Brown, a Bahrain-based spokesman for the Iraq coalition naval forces, told AFP.

Brown said the measures were "in response to recent threats to oil infrastructure in the Gulf, including public statements by Al-Qaeda leadership".

He declined to go into details when asked if the threats were aimed specifically against installations in Saudi Arabia, which operates the world's largest oil terminal at Ras Tannura on the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia pumps more than nine million barrels of oil per day and sits on a quarter of global oil reserves.

Joseph said the US knows from Iranian news reports that "the exercise got the attention of Iran."

However, a US official insisted that the joint maneuvers were planned months ago and not timed with the new pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

On Thursday the UN Security Council's five permanent members -- Russia, Britain, France, China and the US-- met with Germany to discuss sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program.

The resolution, drafted by Britain, France and Germany, provides for a freeze on assets related to Iran's nuclear and missile programs as well as travel bans on nuclear and weapons scientists involved in those programs.

The naval exercises also evoke recent UN sanctions voted against North Korea for its first-ever nuclear test, sanctions which call for the inspection of ship cargoes going in and out of North Korea when they are suspected of carrying nuclear and weapons-related materials.

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