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Naval duties switching hands in gulf

The job of minding key oil terminals is gradually falling to Iraqi sailors.

February 04, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal, Persian Gulf — Every morning on this aging metal hulk, an Iraqi naval officer reads the weather report over the radio so it can be heard by dozens of civilian boats.

It's a job that used to be done by an American sailor.

Here and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf off Iraq's shores, Iraqis are gradually taking over jobs once done by U.S. Marines and sailors. They stand guard on terminals such as this one, which is often compared to the bizarre structures of the movie "Waterworld."

At the port of Umm al Qasr, Iraqis are lectured by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard personnel and British Royal Navy sailors on the techniques of boarding ships, quizzing often hostile crews and searching for contraband and weapons. Some Iraqi sailors participate in inspections with U.S., British and Australian sailors.

It is a slow process for a nation whose navy was destroyed in the early hours of the 2003 assault led by the United States.

"In 2003 we destroyed anything that floated," said Marine Maj. Gen. Carl Jensen, commander of a coalition task force assigned to guard terminals. "So we're trying literally to bring the Iraqi navy back from the grave."

The Khawr al Amaya terminal, and a second facility a few miles away, lie about 60 miles from Iraq and 12 miles from Iran. Together, they provide more than 95% of the Iraqi government's income.

The oil terminals have long been points of friction between Iran and Iraq, leading to several battles during their war. "This place has been shot to hell," said Jensen, walking the 1,000-yard length of the Khawr Al Amaya terminal.

U.S. military sources say the Iranians spy on the terminals from a sunken construction crane and that Iranian patrol boats are a frequent sight.

Tankers arrive daily to fill up with crude oil and depart for refineries around the globe. Disrupting the terminals could sink the Iraqi government's hopes of rebuilding its country.

"This is the economic anchor for Iraq," said Navy Capt. Chris Noble. "We need to guard that anchor."

Cmdr. Jaimie Hatcher, captain of the Australian frigate Toowoomba, puts it in what he calls Australian vernacular: "This mission is bloody important."

Insurgents made a bold assault on the terminals in 2004 but were repelled. Two U.S. sailors and a Coast Guardsman were killed.

Now, a dozen ships ring the terminals to thwart attacks on the hundreds of ships that transit this part of the gulf: fishermen, merchants, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and even a few pirates. A 2.5-mile perimeter is kept around the terminals.

Newly arrived coalition sailors are lectured on the 2004 attack.

"It's not like everybody out here is trying to kill us," Lt. Cmdr. Cesar Rios told a group of Australian sailors last month. "But we have to be aware of what is normal."

In recent months, the Navy has tried to make its presence more friendly to passing ships and their captains. By having an Iraqi read the weather report, the U.S. hopes to encourage those captains to report anything suspicious on the water.

"Think of it as the 1950s cop on the beat in a complicated neighborhood. If you can establish trust, things will work out better," Noble said.

For the fishermen, the coalition sailors have a message: An attack on the oil terminals could cause a disastrous oil spill. "We make it real to them," said Ensign Lisa Green. "They need to know we're here protecting the oil terminals so your fertile fishing grounds remain fertile."

Some of the Iraqi officers are veterans of the Iraqi navy. Many of the enlisted are new recruits.

"They're learning as they go, but they're definitely getting better," said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Kristopher Ensley, executive officer of the cutter Aquidneck.

U.S. officials say Iraq's navy faces the same challenge as its army: changing a top-down style that does not encourage leadership in the enlisted ranks.

"The way they once worked, if you weren't the guy in charge, you weren't anything," said Lt. Aaron Bergman. "They're finally realizing that if you break into smaller units, you can be more effective."

Iraqi oil workers live aboard the terminals, as do U.S. personnel. Six months ago, the U.S. Navy docked a three-story barge at Khawr al Amaya to provide quarters and a chow hall.

Duty in the winter can be pleasant. During the summer it is brutal. Temperatures soar above 120 degrees. "The metal grates get so hot it will melt your shoes," Bergman said.

The U.S. ships are part of the 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain. The smaller craft, such as the 170-foot patrol boats, are permanently based in the gulf, but larger ones, such as the aircraft carriers and their escorts, are assigned from the Pacific and Atlantic fleets.

No one is putting a timetable on when the U.S. can withdraw from the terminals. The Iraqi navy has only half a dozen small boats; it has about 1,000 personnel but hopes to have 2,000 next year.

"This is working but it's going to take time," Jensen said. "We have an enduring interest in these waters. I don't see us ever abandoning the [Persian] Gulf. We have a chance to grow a navy to stand alongside America."

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