Iraqis trying to doing more with less on the oil rigs
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series on coalition forces’ efforts to guard the oil terminals that are key to Iraq’s future. Part I appeared on Oct. 22.
ABOARD THE USS PHILIPPINE SEA — For a group of U.S. sailors deployed from Guam, the only things that feel like home in the northern Persian Gulf are the sweat and humidity. For six months, Mobile Security Detachment 73 will live and work on Iraq’s two off-shore oil terminals, Basra and Khwar Al Amaya.
The sailors stand watch behind big guns, guarding the platforms day and night with Iraqi marine platoons.
Built in 1975, the Basra terminal is Iraq’s bread and butter, comprising about 86 percent of its economy. Crude oil sells here for about half the price at other platforms in the region, and tankers from all over the world come here for fuel.
Khwar Al Amaya, a few miles away, is supplied by one small pipeline and was temporarily closed after a welding accident in May killed two Iraqi oil company employees and ignited a fire. But it’s still guarded around the clock as workers busily repair it.
Since arriving at the end of September, the Guam sailors at Basra are still adjusting to steel grating under their feet and the constant stench of crude oil.
“We live in a tent, double-bunk beds,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicholas Fessler, 20. “That’s something to get used to.”
So is sleeping 85 feet above the ocean. “When you brush your teeth, you spit over the side and you see the toothpaste fall,” Fessler said. “Thank God I’m not scared of heights.”
The goal is to turn over the defense of the terminals to the Iraqis, said Navy Lt. Aaron Bergman, Mobile Security Detachment 73 officer in charge. The Iraqis officially already have operational control.
The handover may take two to three years. That may sound like a long time, he said, but “we’re training 600 guys.”
Iraq’s marine force is only a few years old, and about half the members of each of the six platoons are new recruits, Bergman said.
“It is a slow process, but they’re getting better,” he said.
Not Saddam’s navyThe training is very different from past years, according to an Iraqi marine 1st lieutenant who was a naval officer for seven years under Saddam Hussein.
“Before, everything was difficult,” said the 1st lieutenant, who didn’t feel comfortable giving his name and who spoke through a translator. “We never had enough equipment. They sent us to get training, but we didn’t get it. Only thing that mattered for commanders under Saddam was getting more money, not better training.”
The navy has shrunk from about 10,000 to 2,000 Iraqis, said Navy Rear Adm. John W. Miller, deputy commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and 5th Fleet.
It didn’t need to be that big, Miller said. “This was how Saddam rewarded people: ‘You’re a commander of the navy because you’re a good Baath loyalist.’”
But it’s hard to erase the past.
The Iraqi marines recently began boarding oil tankers with U.S. and coalition members for security sweeps.
Ship captains are used to the old Iraqi regime, Bergman said, where corruption and bribery on the oil platforms ran rampant. “They get nervous when they see the Iraqis coming on board,” he said.
Building trust between the Iraqi military and the coalition also is slow-going but vital, said Royal Australian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Doug Griffiths, a Combined Task Force 158 staffer.
“We’re trying to transition them into a self-sufficient navy that can look after itself,” he said.
Equipment falls shortDuring a recent exercise on the Monomoy, one of two U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats conducting maritime security operations in the northern Persian Gulf, Iraqi marines participated in a vessel boarding search-and-seizure exercise. They were to look for illegal weapons and other contraband, search passengers and inspect ship documents.
The exercise, on the Khawar Al Amaya River, near the Iraqi navy base at Umm Qasr, wasn’t perfect, but the marines for the most part conducted thorough sweeps. Royal Australian Navy Warrant Officer Matt Buckley reminded them to check overhead wiring and hatches, good hiding spots for weapons.
“Be wary of pocketknives and scissors,” he said.
A civilian translator who asked not to be identified said the Iraqis need more equipment. “We only have five boats,” he said. “They are very old.”
Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Lockwood, Combined Task Force 158 commander, said for maritime law enforcement, Iraqis have five Chinese predator-class patrol boats.
“As soon as you get any wind over about 15 knots, it gets very uncomfortable in them and they have to run for home,” he said.
Miller said the Iraqis recently inked a deal with the Italians for more patrol boats.
He believes more challenging for the Iraqis will be building the infrastructure, such as ship-berthing and places for sailors to live, eat and train.
“It will become obvious that they’re ready to defend their own territorial waters as well as the oil platforms,” Miller said. “It’s really hard to put a timeline on that.”