CAIRO, Egypt -- Egyptian officials consider Iran and Libya the prime suspects in the mysterious mining of the the Red Sea, where at least a dozen ships have been damaged over the past two weeks.
They say the mining incidents appear to be linked to the 47-month-old Gulf war bwtween Iran and Iraq.
The connection was suggested most explicitly by Egypt's top military officer, Defense Minister Abdel Halim Abu-Ghazala.
'We believe these incidents are only threats, a retaliation for what is happening in the Gulf region,' Abu-Ghazala said of the Red Sea mining.
'The country that we suspect is behind these incidents needs the Suez Canal for the passage of its equipment and other goods,' Abu-Ghazala said in a thinly-veiled reference to Iran.
What Abu-Ghazala meant was that Iran had not previously sought to interfere with the Suez Canal and the Red Sea because the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini needed those routes to import military equipment and food.
What Iran sought, Abu-Ghazala seemed to suggest, was intimidation of nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have backed Iraq in the Gulf war.
Other analysts suggested Iran wanted to disrupt the flow of oil from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations to Europe. A giant Saudi Arabian pipeline carries Saudi crude to the Red Sea port of Yanboh.
Iran has threatened to mine the Strait of Hormuz, through which the bulk of Gulf oil passes on its way to the West and Japan, if its oil terminal at Kharg Island is destroyed by Iraq.
Iranian warplanes also attacked tankers carrying Saudiand Kuwaiti crude in the Gulf.
Another Iranian objective could be to discourage ships from sailing through the Suez Canal, thus dealing a blow to one of Egypt's main sources of foreign currency. Egypt earns nearly $1 billion annually in Suez Canal revenue.
Egyptian officials stressed repeatedly that shipping is safe in the Suez Canal and Gulf of Suez. But their appeal for U.S. minesweeping helicopters and British naval minesweepers dramatized their concern.
Officials have dismissed the claim made by the Islamic Jihad organization that it dropped 190 mines in the Red Sea 'and will drop more unless imperialism changes its policy in the Middle East.'
'No terrorist group has the technical ability to sow mines in international waters,' one official said.
Suspicion also focused on Libya as a possible culprit. Abu-Ghazala said once that two countries were responsible for laying the mines, but he did not name them.
Libya's principal objective would be to wreck the Egyptian economy, a necessary step if Col. Moammar Khadafy is to realize his dream of emerging as the leader of a united Arab world.
But so far there is no hard evidence to back up the accusations against Iran and Libya. Air and naval patrols in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez have not located a single mine. Suspect ships transiting the Suez Canal were searched, but no explosives were found.
Egypt's has no diplomatic ties with either Iran or Libya. Those with Libya were broken after the late President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977. Iran severed ties when Egypt signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Despite the rupture, Egypt has worked within the non-aligned movement to end the Gulf war and bring Iraq and Iran to the negotiating table. But the Egyptian mediation effort was spurned by Iran.