By Mohammed Abbas
ABOARD USS UNDERWOOD, Feb 19 (Reuters) - On the surface, all appears calm at the U.S. Navy base in Bahrain, where troops mill about chatting, eating or shopping.
But with two aircraft carriers ordered to the Gulf, they are on the front line of a mounting standoff with Iran.
Home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, this tiny Gulf island is the command centre for roughly 30 U.S. and 15 allied ships patrolling the waters right on Iran’s doorstep.
“The two carriers ordered here. That’s significant. We haven’t had carriers here for sustained operations since 2003,” said Charlie Brown, a Fifth Fleet spokesman. “Our forces help stabilise and provide security. We want to make sure that any country doesn’t miscalculate our commitment.”
The United States has said it has no plans to attack Iran, but having ordered two aircraft carriers to the Gulf after it accused Iran’s forces of supplying Iraqi militants with bombs that have killed 170 coalition soldiers and trying to build nuclear weapons, many in the Gulf are concerned.
The main justification given for the 2003- U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction, but the weapons were never found and Washington later blamed faulty intelligence.
Iran, which insists its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful, this month test-fired missiles that could sink “big warships” in the Gulf, stoking tensions.
“It definitely causes more concern,” said naval engineer Shane Eckhart, aboard the USS Underwood, a frigate moored in Bahrain prior to starting a tour of the region.
“It makes what we’re doing here a little more nerve-wracking, but we’re over here to support our country regardless.” READY FOR ALL CONTINGENCIES
Eckhart and other personnel said regional tensions had not affected daily routines but navy spokeswoman Denise Garcia, who sat nearby, said the fleet was ready for “all contingencies”.
Though Bahrain is a base for 3,000 U.S. personnel, not including the crews of visiting ships, navy staff keep a low profile in the tiny kingdom of about 750,000 people.
A cap on how many U.S. personnel can live in any apartment block outside the base spreads staff out, making them less noticeable. The rule is meant to reduce the likelihood of attacks by militants in a region that has been rocked by al Qaeda violence in recent years.
U.S. personnel mingle with Bahrainis at cafes near the base, and shopkeepers in Manama’s souk try to attract navy customers by shouting greetings like “hey wassup?” in cheesy U.S. accents.
But while there has been little objection to the U.S. presence in Bahrain, anti-U.S. sentiment runs high around the Gulf. Bahrain is Sunni-ruled, but most Bahrainis are Shi’ite Muslims, the dominant sect in Iran.
With sectarian violence raging in Iraq, few Gulf Arabs want to see another war on their doorstep.
“It’s a delicate art — trying to have that interaction with Bahrainis and not trying to be too present,” said Kevin Aandahl, a U.S. Navy Commander and public affairs officer.
((Editing by Lin Noueihed and Sami Aboudi; Manama newsroom +973 175 24430; Fax + 973 17536194; email@example.com)) Keywords: BAHRAIN USA/NAVY
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