USS Nimitz heads home from Persian Gulf

WASHINGTON — The U.S. is bringing an aircraft carrier home from the Persian Gulf region, the Defense Department said Friday, after keeping two of the warships there for months as the Obama administration considered a military strike on Syria.

The decision to bring back the Everett-based USS Nimitz underscores the shift from a pointed military threat against the Syrian government to a broader diplomatic approach. It comes as international experts work to meet a mid-2014 deadline to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program.

According to officials, the Nimitz moved through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea, and is expected to be back at its home port of Everett before Christmas. The Navy destroyer the USS Graveley also has left the Mediterranean Sea and is returning home, reducing the U.S. naval presence there as well.

Earlier this summer, in the aftermath of a deadly Aug. 21 chemical weapon attack on rebel-held Damascus suburbs, the U.S. sharply increased its Navy presence in the region. Washington and its allies said the Syrian government was responsible for the attack.

The U.S. spread cruisers and destroyers across the eastern Mediterranean, just waiting for the command to launch missiles into Syria. But after threatening military action for weeks, President Barack Obama on Aug. 31 abruptly announced he would go to Congress for approval of a strike.

Amid vocal opposition in Congress, the U.S. and other international allies increased diplomatic efforts, ultimately securing the right for experts to inspect chemical weapons sites as part of a mission to destroy all facilities and machinery for mixing the chemicals into poison gas.

Syria is believed to possess around 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and sarin.

The Nimitz was scheduled to return to the U.S. in August, but was ordered to stay in the region as part of the U.S. show of military force and in case it was needed in connection with any strike.

The aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman remains in the North Arabian Sea, and three U.S. warships — The USS Stout and the USS Ramage, both destroyers, and the USS Monterey, a cruiser, are in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Navy and defense officials said Friday that the U.S. still has a sufficient expanse of military fire power in the region.

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PORT SAID, Egypt — An official at Egypt’s Suez Canal said a U.S. aircraft carrier and a destroyer have crossed the waterway from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.

The official said the U.S. warships crossed Friday after 14 hours of heightened security along the canal. The official said that included closing all roads along the canal and having Egyptian military helicopters provide air support.

The official said the aircraft carrier was the USS Nimitz, based in Everett. He did not identify the destroyer.

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