MANAMA, Bahrain -- The attack on the guided missile frigate USS Stark was a 'tragic accident' that is unlikely to worsen the 6 -year-old Iran-Iraq war, diplomatic sources said Monday.
The U.S. Navy ship was hit Sunday night by one of two missiles fired by Iraqi jets in the Persian Gulf, causing explosions, a fire and serious casualties, U.S. officials said. At least one American was killed and the burning ship was reported dead in the water.
It was the first strike on an American warship in the oil-rich Gulf and the State Department filed an immediate protest with the Iraqi Embassy, but U.S. officials said it was thought to be a mistaken attack in the war between Iraq and Iran. The United States claims neutrality in the war.
'There is no indication of hostile intent on the part of the Iraqis. It appears to be an inadvertent incident,' a Pentagon spokesman said.
U.S. Embassy officials in Bahrain refused comment on the attack but diplomatic sources in the Gulf confirmed the belief among officials in Washington that the attack was unintentional.
'It looks as though it was a tragic accident,' said one Western source who asked not to be identified.
'It was probably Exocet missiles fired blindly at night,' he said.
The Stark was hit in an area of the Persian Gulf where in the past Iraqi Super Etendard warplanes have fired missiles at tankers carrying Iranian crude from Iran's Kharg Island oil terminal.
Such night attacks using French-made Exocets or infra-red guided missiles have sometimes hit unintentional targets.
Another diplomatic source said there was already considerable relief in Gulf political sources that the attack was not made by Iran, which they said could have led to superpower involvement in the Gulf war.
'People were really shaking in their shoes when they heard about this first,' he said. 'They have calmed down now.'
Iranian officials have threatened to attack U.S. ships if they interfered with its operations against Iraq.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy said in Baghdad May 11 during a tour of the Gulf area that 'We regard any attack on an American ship as a very serious affair.'
'We will do what is necessary to ensure the passage of our ships,' Murphy said.
The United States has up to six destroyers and frigates on regular duty in the Gulf. Their prime duty is to protect freedom of navigation through the strategic Strait of Hormuz, where Iran has installed powerful Chinese-made HY-2 'Silkworm' missiles.
A number of merchant vessels travel at night to avoid attack, but it was not known if the Stark was escorting a commercial convoy at the time it was hit.
British and French Navy ships also patrol the Gulf, and a Soviet force also has been active in the area recently.
A Soviet freighter traveling from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia was attacked by Iranian gunboats off Dubai this month in the first attack on a ship flying a superpower flag.
The so called 'tanker war,' in which Iran and Iraq heve tried to choke off each other's oil exports, began March 27, 1984 with attack on a Greek oil tanker by an Iraqui jet.
In recent months, there have been as many as 2-3 per week by both sides.
Iran's naval forces have stopped U.S. ships in the Gulf to check if they were carrying arms destined for Iraq but never have attacked American vessels.