ABOARD THE USS KIDD IN THE GULF OF OMAN -- The American flag was hoisted Tuesday over two Kuwaiti tankers waiting to enter the Persian Gulf under heavy U.S. naval and air protection, opening a new chapter of U.S. military involvement in the war-torn region.
At 8:04 a.m. on a hot, humid morning under partly cloudly skies, the Kuwaiti colors were lowered on the 210,068-ton Bridgeton, formerly the Al Rekkah, and a small U.S. flag presented earlier this month by members of the House Armed Services Committee was raised to the top of the mast.
Moments later the small U.S. flag rippling in 14-knot winds was exchanged for a larger, easier-to-see flag. A dozen crew members watched the ceremony from the deck of the reflagged supertanker riding seas running to 2 to 4 feet.
A little over an hour later, the ceremony was repeated on the stern of the 43,804-ton Gas Prince, formerly the Gas al Minagish. A dozen people stood near the mast and congratulated each other.
With the reflagging, Navy warships nearby officially began their mission of guarding the tankers, now anchored in the Gulf of Oman, 20 miles off the port of Khor Fakkan on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates.
The escort operation begins a new era in U.S. involvement in the gulf. Never before have so many American warships been so actively involved in the area on a mission that could put the United States between two warring nations.
The U.S. forces will be seeking to protect the tankers from Iranian attack, even though it was an Iraqi action -- the May 17 attack on the USS Stark that killed 37 American sailors -- that helped trigger the U.S. move.
While the Reagan administration maintains it is neutral in the war, the escort operation appears to put the United States on the side of Iraq because the mission is widely supported by Arab nations in the gulf that oppose Iran in the war.
President Reagan said he was taking the action to protect freedom of navigation in international waters, but critics charged the escort plan could drag the United States into the nearly 7-year-old Iran-Iraq war.
In the gulf, the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd patrolled 1 mile south of the Bridgeton, and the cruiser USS Fox circled near the Gas Prince.
Navy ships and helicopters threw a protective cordon around the tankers, chasing away correspondents, other than pool reporters aboard the Navy ships, who attempted to approach the area in chartered boats and helicopters.
In Paris, France which has supplied weapons to Iraq, announced Tuesday it would deploy two navy ships equipped with Exocet missiles in the Persian Gulf to protect French shipping.
The U.S. reflagging plan has brought with it one of the largest buildups of U.S. forces in the area. Protecting the tankers in the gulf will be an eight-ship U.S. naval task force led by the flagship USS Lasalle.
In addition, the aircraft carrier USS Constellation and its task force is just outside the gulf in the Arabian Sea and the carrier-based U.S. warplanes are within easy reach of Iran's missile sites.
The tankers are expected to sail through the perilous Strait of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf under U.S. naval and air cover Tuesday night or Wednesday.
The reflagging completed for the two ships the formal process of re-registration, under which 11 Kuwaiti tankers, operated by the Kuwait Oil Tanker Co., are to be transferred to U.S. control, entitling them to Navy protection. The reflagging also marked the change in command of the two tankers.
There were no reports of fighting or attacks by Iran or Iraq on ships in the gulf Tuesday. Iraqi troops launched an attack against Iranian positions on Iraq's southern Faw peninsula early Tuesday but it was repulsed, Tehran radio said.
The reflagging came one day after the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war. Tehran rejected the Security Council resolution, while the Iraqi government said it would consider the question. In the past it has indicated it will accept.
Kuwait sought protection because its tankers were coming under frequent attack from Iran for its financial support of Iraq in the war.
The Soviet Union agreed to lease three tankers to Kuwait, whose sole source of national income is its oil exports. The Reagan administration followed by offering to reflag and protect half of Kuwait's 22-ship tanker fleet.
The empty tankers must pass through the critical chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz, near the Iranian coast where Tehran has been installing Chinese-made Silkworm missiles.
Then the vessels must ply the 600-mile-long Gulf, where more than 300 commercial ships have been attacked since the start of the gulf war in 1980, to pick up crude oil in Kuwait and transport it back down to the gulf entrance.