WASHINGTON -- U.S. helicopter gunships sank one Iranian patrol boat and disabled two others after Iranians fired on the choppers in the first attack against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said today.
Two of six Iranian sailors wounded in the clash Thursday died, the Pentagon said.
There were no American casualties and Weinberger said three helicopters were involved, none of which the Pentagon said were damaged. Pentagon sources identified them as Army gunship choppers.
Iran said its forces shot down one U.S. helicopter. The Pentagon denied the claim.
The engagement marked the first time U.S. forces were attacked by Iranians in the gulf and came after senior Iranian officials repeatedly warned of reprisals for the U.S. strike against an Iranian mine-laying ship Sept. 21.
The clash threatened to spark a renewed conflict between Congress and the administration over the War Powers Resolution, which President Reagan has refused to invoke for fear it would cripple his abilities to use U.S. forces in the gulf.
In remarks to the U.S. Information Agency, Weinberger said the helicopters sank a 42-foot Swedish-built Boghammar patrol boat and 'disabled' two 'Boston Whaler' boats that he said were equipped with machine guns and U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
Initial reports Thursday night said the helicopter had sunk all three boats.
Both of the smaller boats were taken under tow and 'we'll be examining them fairly closely,' Weinberger said.
A fourth Iranian ship in the area of the clash was identified by Weinberger as a corvette, a vessel abouty 160 feet long that he said left the vicinity.
The helicopter pilots did not need to ask permission to return fire at the Iranian boats because 'we have always had the position that our men should not be required to be hit before they are authorized to respond,' Weinberger said.
'When you have a clear hostile act -- and I can't imagine anything more hostile than being shot at -- you have the authority immediately, automatically, to respond appropriately, and they responded appropriately,' he said.
Yet even with broad support among leaders in Washington, the incident renewed angry calls in Congress for Reagan to abide by the war powers act that would give lawmakers a decision on the future of the U.S. gulf presence.
In Iran today, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said, 'Iranian forces aboard speedboats shot down a U.S. helicopter with surface-to-air Stinger missiles and damaged an American vessel immediately after U.S. helicopter gunships attacked five speedboats in the international waters of the Persian Gulf Thursday.'
A Pentagon spokesman in Washington said today of the Iranian claim, 'I have no reports on any engagement.'
The fiery clash erupted at 2:50 p.m. EDT in the north-central gulf 15 miles southwest of Iran's Farsi Island when three or four Iranian patrol boats fired at a U.S. observation helicopter on routine night patrol in international air space, Pentagon spokesman Fred Hoffman said Thursday.
Two Army MH-6 commando choppers in the vicinity immediately opened fire in response, attacking the boats with 2.75-inch rockets and 7.62mm machine guns capable of firing 2,000 rounds a minute, the Pentagon and sources said. Three were sunk and a fourth 'apparently' escaped unscathed, Hoffman said.
'The firing on the U.S. helicopter is clearly a hostile act and the return fire was in self-defense,' he declared.
Two U.S. Navy Mark 3 patrol boats picked up six Iranian survivors, three of them wounded and in serious condition, and took them to the assault ship USS Raleigh where two later died, the Pentagon said.
The initial Pentagon account gave the impression at least three helicopters were involved, but sources said there may only have been two - with one of the lightweight choppers acting as the observation aircraft before it was fired upon. U.S. combat aircraft generally fly in pairs.
'It went from an observation role to an attack role as soon as the firing started,' one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
'Those guys just pushed everything when that happened,' a source said of the American response. 'They started it and we finished it.'
In a separate incident 40 minutes later, a U.S. helicopter flying from the frigate USS Ford reported shots fired from an Iranian oil rig in the southern gulf about 120 miles east of Bahrain, the Pentagon said. It could not be determined if shots were fired, and the chopper did not respond by shooting.
'The helicopter cleared the area without further incident. There were no injuries or damage to either side,' an official statement said.
The engagement was the first direct attack by Iranian forces on the U.S. military in the tight confines of the strategic gulf, where Iran has been at war with Iraq for seven years. It came after Iranian leaders warned repeatedly of reprisals for the Sept. 21 U.S. helicopter strike against the mine-laying ship Iran Ajr 50 miles northeast of Bahrain.
Five Iranians were killed, 26 were captured and later returned to Iran and the blunt-nosed Iran Ajr was scuttled by the U.S. Navy in that incident.
Tehran radio described the latest incident as a 'savage attack' by the United States on boats that were 'on ordinary patrol.' The broadcast said several Iranians were 'martyred' and it warned 'American aggression ... is digging a historical grave for the United States in the region.'
Beyond Iranian anger, however, the engagement brought to the surface the simmering conflict between Congress and the administration over whether the 1973 War Powers Act should be brought into play in the gulf.
The resolution requires a president to inform Congress within 48 hours when U.S. forces are in an area of hostilities, triggering a 60-day period for lawmakers to approve or reject continued U.S. involvement. Reagan has refused to invoke the law, arguing it limits his powers and may be unconstitutional.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Thursday the administration had 'no preliminary judgments' about whether the law should be invoked as a result of the latest clash. He reiterated Reagan's pledge to comply 'with the spirit' of the law by giving Congress full details of the incident. Reagan was briefed on the exchange of gunfire 40 minutes after it occurred, Fitzwater said.
At the Pentagon, Hoffman was asked if the administration still held to its position that U.S. forces are not in danger of hostilities in the gulf.
'Yes, sir,' he replied.
The administration's response enraged Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., who has demanded use of the War Powers Act along with fellow GOP Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon and many Democrats. Weicker pointed out about 40 U.S. warships are in the gulf region and many are at risk escorting U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tankers.
'As these matters compound themselves we all look like fools, fools who are disregarding the law,' he declared on the Senate floor Thursday. 'Decisions of war and peace are clearly to be made by the president and the Congress.'
One of the three patrol boats sunk was a 42-foot Swedish-built Boghammar and the other two were 'Boston Whalers' speedboats about 18-feet in length, sources said. All three were equipped with machine guns and grenades for use in attacking tankers in the gulf and were too small to be mine-layers, one source added.
Pentagon sources said U.S. helicopters have been closely tracking the Iranian attack boats since a small armada of 60 to 70 of them massed over the weekend and made a dash toward Saudi Arabia. The armada dispersed into smaller groups of 15 to 20 boats in the last few days, according to one source.
Thursday's incident not only was the first attack on U.S. forces by Iran but was the first attack against American personnel since May 17, when an Iraqi F-1 Mirage jet launched two Exocet missiles at the frigate USS Stark, killing 37 sailors and wounding 21 others.
That incident put the spotlight on the U.S. buildup in the gulf, also rousing Congress to action to implement the War Powers Act or a hybrid of it.
Iraq apologized for the night attack, saying it was an 'unintentional' case of mistaken identity. The United States accepted the apology and asked for compensation for the ship.