The US Navy is sending at least three ships, including at least one amphibious assault ship, to the eastern Mediterranean Sea in a show of strength during a period of tensions with Syria and political uncertainty in Lebanon.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Thursday the deployment should not be viewed as threatening or in response to events in any single country in the volatile region.
"This is an area that is important to us, the eastern Med," he said when asked about news reports of the ship movements. "It's a group of ships that will operate in the vicinity there for a while," adding that "it isn't meant to send any stronger signals than that. But it does signal that we're engaged, we're going to be in the vicinity, and that's a very, very important part of the world."
Another military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because full details about the ship movements are not yet public, said a Navy guided missile destroyer, the USS Cole, was headed for patrol in the eastern Mediterranean and that it is accompanied by two refueling ships. The Cole is equipped to engage in a variety of offensive actions, including anti-aircraft and land attack missions.
Another group led by the USS Nassau, an amphibious warship, is headed in that direction on a normally scheduled deployment and some or all six ships in the Nassau group might operate in the eastern Mediterranean also, the official said.
The officer said a third ship would go later, but he did not identify it by type or name.
A Navy news release said the Nassau Expeditionary Strike Group entered the 6th Fleet's operational area on Monday. Besides the Nassau, the group included a guided missile cruiser, two guided missile destroyers and two other amphibious warfare ships. The amphibious warfare ships can carry thousands of US Marines.
The US 6th Fleet, whose area of operations covers the entire Mediterranean, is based at Naples, Italy.
The decision to send the ships appeared to be a not-too-subtle show of US force in the region as international frustration mounts over a long political deadlock in tiny, weak Lebanon. The US 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. Just this week the date was pushed back to March 11.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to visit the Middle East next week.
Michel Aoun, a major opposition leader to the US-backed government in Beirut, said the ship movements looked like a calculated show of force by the US.
"There is no need for it," Aoun was quoted as saying by the al-Manar television of his Hezbollah allies.
Other Arab countries appear to be becoming involved in the Lebanese impasse.
Syria is to host an Arab summit in Damascus late this month, and pro-US Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt reportedly are threatening to boycott if no president is elected in Lebanon by then. This could be a tactic by the Saudis and Egyptians to force Syrian concessions in Lebanon to save the summit. The Syrians so far have said the summit will go ahead as planned, regardless of who refuses to attend.
Mustafa Alloush, a member of the Lebanese parliament from the US-backed majority, told the majority's Future television that neither the government nor the anti-Syrian majority had any links to the dispatching of the Cole.