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The ship-to-ship radio chatter was mostly Arabic. A vessel that looked like a fishing boat appeared in the distance off the USS Nassau’s starboard bow.

A number of fishing vessels were in the Strait of Gibraltar as the Nassau steamed through to the Mediterranean Sea, leading a Marine amphibious-ready group bound for Kosovo peacekeeping duties.

But this particular vessel was bearing down on the warship, which is part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a rapid-reaction force that will be deployed early in an invasion of Iraq.

The Nassau began to hail the vessel, but it did not reply. The Arabic chatter, monitored on the bridge of the warship, intensified.

The vessel kept coming, and was on a collision course with the USS Tortuga, a dock-landing ship traveling with the flagship Nassau.

The captain of the Tortuga began to hail the vessel, but he also got no answer. The small boat kept coming at full speed. The Arabic chatter slowed.

The captain ordered the water hoses moved to the bridge level to hose down the vessel.

But they weren’t ready before the boat broke the 100-yard barrier, and the captain of the Tortuga requested permission to fire on the vessel. The flagship’s captain turned him down.

Then the vessel closed to within about 50 yards of the Tortuga. At this point, the captain ordered .50-caliber machine guns brought up to the bridge.

“I’ll take the first shot,” he shouted, the image of the damaged hull of the USS Cole in his mind. “I’ll take the blame.”

At the last minute, within 50 yards of the Tortuga, the vessel adjusted course just enough to run parallel with the Tortuga. The captain ordered the vessel tracked after it peeled off.

The USS Austin, running behind the Tortuga, called the Tortuga bridge to ask why it hadn’t fired on the craft, which clearly threatened to ram the ship, which carried 468 Marines.

The close call, as described to WorldNetDaily by members of the amphibious group who witnessed the incident Sept. 10 – the day before the anniversary of the Islamic attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon – is thought to be part of plans by al-Qaida-tied terrorists in North Africa, especially Algeria and Morocco, to harass or attack NATO and U.S. ships in Gibraltar and the Mediterranean.

A week after the incident, the three-ship group was “shadowed by two commercial vessels with apparent al-Qaida ties,” a member of the group said.

The Pentagon and Navy declined comment.

But military sources say the group subsequently was ordered to locate vessels with al-Qaida collaborators on board. One of the vessels the group tracked was a commercial ship named the “TARA.”

Moroccan officials have said they averted suicide assaults on U.S. and British ships in Gibraltar by arresting three Saudi al-Qaida suspects in Casablanca in May.

Also, the Pentagon has said that Abu Zubair, a senior al-Qaida operative arrested earlier this year, was involved in an abortive mission to blow up NATO ships in the Mediterranean.

Threat persists

But the threat of suicide attacks from al-Qaida in the region persists, particularly as military shipping tempo increases in preparation for possible war with Iraq – something al-Qaida has vowed to resist.

To counter the threat, the British Royal Navy has moved two anti-terrorist patrol boats to Gibraltar.

It’s not immediately clear what steps the U.S. military is taking to counter the threat, or what the rules are for engaging menacing Arab-registered vessels. The Pentagon declined comment.

The suicide attack on a French oil tanker last month off Yemen is thought to be the work of al-Qaida or sympathizers.

To make an amphibious assault on Iraq in the Persian Gulf, Marines and British forces in the Atlantic must transit the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean and sail through the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia this time has refused assistance in such an Iraqi operation.

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