The battleship USS Iowa has steamed through World War II, the Korean War and the tension-filled Middle East, and suffered one of the worst peacetime accidents in U.S. naval history.

The powerful battlewagon with the booming 16-inch guns is about to take another hit: retirement.The Navy on Friday will decommission "The Big Stick," a casualty of the defense budget battle. A sister ship, the battleship USS New Jersey based in Long Beach, Calif., will be retired in February.

Critics have said the battleships, returned to service by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, should have remained mothballed. Some say they are strategically outmoded and unsafe, pointing to the April 19, 1989, gun turret explosion aboard the Iowa that killed 47 sailors.

But the Iowa's skipper says the dreadnought remains a viable weapon, noting the Norfolk-based battleship USS Wisconsin, another sister ship to the Iowa, is currently stationed in the Persian Gulf region in support of Operation Desert Shield.

"I think that this ship can take more punishment than any class of ship in our Navy," Cmdr. John P. Morse, the Iowa's commanding officer, said in a recent interview aboard the ship.

"Some of our crewmembers would love to be the battleship that's there (in the Middle East)," Morse said, adding that some Iowa sailors have asked to be transferred to the Wisconsin.

"What's more important than individual hull numbers is the fact that we've got a battleship in the Persian Gulf," the captain said. "I think that's of major significance."

The Iowa's decommissioning - its third - comes six years after the Pentagon spent nearly $350 million to bring it back into service and 18 months after the tragic blast gutted turret No. 2 during exercises off Puerto Rico.

While the Navy says the tragedy is not the reason the Iowa is being retired, the explosion hastened its departure from active duty. It raised safety questions about the nine 16-inch guns aboard each of the four Iowa-class battleships: the Iowa, New Jersey, Wisconsin and USS Missouri.

A Navy investigation concluded Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Clayton Hartwig "most likely" caused the explosion by sabotage. But the probe was reopened after tests indicated the explosion could have been accidental.

The Navy for a time banned firing of the 16-inch guns, but the Wisconsin was recently authorized to shoot them. The guns can fire a projectile some 24 miles.

The Iowa fired its guns for the last time in November 1989, said Lt. Cmdr. Brad Goforth, the Iowa's public affairs officer.