DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- An Iraqi merchant ship ignored more than 40 warning shots blasted across its bow by a U.S. destroyer yesterday in an act of defiance that raises the prospect of a new confrontation at sea.
A tense standoff in the Persian Gulf continued into the night as the Iraqi vessel continued toward the Yemeni port of Aden after its captain made clear to the Navy destroyer O'Brien that he did not intend to return to Iraq, military officials said.
The officials said that the Iraqi ship, the 7,000-ton Al Bahar Al Arabi, was being shadowed overnight by an Italian frigate. The Navy said it could not discuss "future U.S. involvement in this intercept."
But one U.S. official noted that American warships were positioning themselves in front of the Iraqi ship and could seek to block its path as early as first light today.
The ship's refusal to halt, despite a fierce display of U.S. firepower, marks the first time since the very first days of the U.N.-imposed embargo in August that a ship has refused to halt when warning shots have been fired.
The incident comes in the wake of indications that masters of Iraqi ships have received new orders from their companies -- and perhaps from the Iraqi government -- to refuse to heed orders of foreign navies, according to U.S. commanders.
The Iraqi ship initially submitted to a search of its cargo by a U.S. Navy boarding party after first being challenged by the O'Brien Saturday, according to Lt. Cmdr. J. D. Van Sickle, a Navy spokesman here.
The vessel apparently was found to be carrying prohibited cargo and was ordered either to return to Iraq or to be diverted to another port for unloading. According to the Navy account, the Iraqi master agreed to return to Iraq.
But after the boarding party left, the vessel instead continued on its southward course toward the Strait of Hormuz and ignored repeated radio requests to halt.
The U.S. destroyer later fired the first of 40 warning shots, including 15 shells from a 25mm cannon and two larger projectiles from the ship's 5-inch deck gun in what the Navy described as an effort to "gain [the Iraqi ship's] attention."
But the 400-foot-long vessel stayed on its course. In radio communications with the U.S. vessel, the ship's master "indicated he did not intend to adhere to O'Brien's directions to return to Iraq," the Navy said.
The apparent new instructions to Iraqi captains to refuse orders to halt would mark a reversal from what U.S. officials have described as earlier orders that they cooperate. The U.S. commanders who described the turnabout said in recent interviews that Iraqi captains now fear retribution against their families if they submit to a search.
Since Aug. 2, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States has fired warning shots at half a dozen Iraqi vessels to force them to halt and submit to a search. The only other incidents in which Iraqi vessels ignored warning shots came on Aug. 18, about two weeks after the embargo began, when two Iraqi tankers were fired upon by U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
The degree of tension in yesterday's incident was indicated by the heavy volume of fire from the U.S. warship in its effort to stop the Iraqi vessel. Military officials said ships enforcing the sanctions generally rely exclusively on smaller, 50-caliber machine guns.
A report from a British journalist aboard a warship in the gulf indicated that ships in the region have been placed on a higher level of alert.
As the Iraqi ship continued toward the Strait of Hormuz last night, the Navy said it was being tailed by the Italian vessel Libeccio.
It was unclear what cargo the ship was seeking to carry to Aden. A Navy spokesman said that information, presumably obtained during the search of the vessel Saturday, had not yet been authorized for release.