- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

UMM QASR, Iraq — The new Iraqi navy, reformed only two years ago after its destruction during 12 years of war and sanctions, has begun conducting independent patrols as part of the multinational effort to protect Iraq’s offshore oil platforms and its ports of Umm Qasr and Khawr Al Zubayr.

Meanwhile, the young force is rapidly expanding at its base 20 miles inland on the Khawr Abd Allah channel, Iraq’s only access to the Persian Gulf.

Transport Minister Salam al-Maliki calls Iraq’s ports the “line through which the Iraqi people breathe.”

Every month, Umm Qasr accepts 50 to 60 ships carrying 10,000 tons of grain. Khawr Al Zubayr, a few miles north along the same channel, handles fewer ships but earns $500,000 a month for the national government.

Two 36-inch pipelines pump oil from Umm Qasr to two offshore platforms, which, combined, are capable of filling five tanker ships simultaneously.

Oil shipped from the platforms accounts for $12 billion in annual revenue for the government, making the need for a strong navy “quite self-evident,” said Lt. Andrew Livsey, a British naval adviser.

Lt. Livsey, 29, is a member of the maritime and riverine Advisory Support Team (AST), a group of 20 British, American and Polish advisers based at Umm Qasr who assist the Iraqi navy.

On a recent afternoon, blue-clad Iraqi sailors worked on small boats and on two patrol craft at the base while a large ship was unloaded in the distance. At the base’s front gate, a naval infantryman screened incoming traffic.

Lt. Livsey said the Iraqi navy was up to the task of safeguarding the area’s oil infrastructure. “For six weeks, they’ve kept a boat out 24-7 — a considerable achievement,” he said.

The chief of the Iraqi navy, Commodore Muhammad Jawad, during a visit to the U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain in May, said the navy “grows day after day.”

“My primary mission is three steps: The first is to protect my [oil] platforms, protect my trade ports and a very important thing — to protect the fishermen and civilian men who work in territory water,” he said.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Iraqi navy purchased eight fast-attack patrol boats from the Soviet Union and from Italy bought four frigates and six corvettes, which were never delivered because of an Italian government embargo.

By the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the navy consisted mainly of a collection of guided-missile patrol boats and auxiliaries.

The Iraqi force was reborn in 2003 as the Iraqi coast guard. After intensive training by coalition forces, the coast guard graduated to “navy” status in December, with a force of 600, including 200 naval infantrymen who guard the platforms.

The service operates five coastal patrol boats that were ordered by the Saddam Hussein-era navy but not delivered until after the U.S.-led invasion. In addition, the navy operates radar-equipped small boats.

Commodore Jawad said the navy has signed a contract with an Iraqi shipyard to build six patrol boats — three of which could enter the service by the end of the year.

In coming weeks, the navy will add 200 naval infantrymen, trained by Iraqi instructors, and accept several tugboats capable of acting as “mother ships” to the patrol boats, said Royal Navy Capt. Wayne Kreble, commander of the AST.

The expansion comes as coalition nations and the Iraqi Port Authority are working to maintain the oil platforms and expand operations at both ports.

The United Nations has issued a $24 million contract to a Belgian firm to dredge the Khawr Abd Allah, increasing its depth to 39 feet from 30 feet and allowing larger ships to reach Khawr Al Zubayr, Capt. Kreble said. Port Authority officials say local workers are helping clear hazardous wrecks from the channel.

Mr. al-Maliki said Basra province was becoming the “commercial capital” of Iraq because of its ports and oil platforms, and even as the Iraqi navy improves, a coalition naval force led by an Australian officer aboard an American warship maintains a constant presence beyond the platforms.

“Do you believe that any Western country is going to let platforms that have access to a third of the world’s oil reserves be anything but well-protected?” Capt. Kreble asked.

Still, the captain said, “The end state we’re working for is Iraqi control. And right now, the Iraqi navy is one of the only Iraqi security forces operating on their own.”

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