Gates, commanders plan naval operations

MANAMA, Bahrain – Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with senior U.S. and coalition naval commanders Thursday to plan operations in the Persian Gulf, including the arrival next month of another U.S. aircraft carrier and more Patriot missiles meant in part as a warning to Iran.

This tiny state in the northern Gulf is headquarters to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and Central Command’s naval staff.

Gates also flew to nearby Qatar for a private meeting and lunch with that nation’s leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Later he was visiting an air base that hosts a high-tech war room that is the nerve center of all U.S. and coalition air operations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Under ground rules imposed by U.S. officials, reporters traveling with Gates were prohibited from identifying the base or the country in which it is located.

In Bahrain, a British Royal Navy officer who is the No. 2 commander for coalition naval forces in the Central Command area of responsibility told reporters that the exact role and missions of the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis, which is due to arrive in the Gulf area next month, have not yet been worked out.

British Commodore Keith Winstanley said the Stennis deployment should not be seen entirely as a move aimed at Iran, but he added, “I’m sure there’s a message there for Iran.”

He said Iranian naval operations have not changed in any significant way since President Bush announced last week that he was sending a second carrier to the Gulf, and Winstanley said at-sea contacts with the Iranian navy have been “extremely cordial.”

Earlier, Gates spoke of possibly sending more troops to Afghanistan, where there are now about 24,000 U.S. troops.

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