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Iraq Navy trains to defend Gulf oil platforms
01.03.09 12:11 Iraq War, "War on terror"
ABOARD IRAQ NAVY PATROL BOAT 103, Northern Gulf: As a grey speck appeared above the waves, Iraqi Captain Mithak realised it was too small and fast to be just another fishing boat, so he reached for the radio.

"Unknown vessel, you are approaching the 3,000-metre (yard) exclusion zone," he yelled into the handset.

"Turn away immediately or I will be forced to take defensive action," he said, sounding the ship′s horn as a machine-gunner swung his weapon towards the threat, only minutes after a US Black Hawk helicopter passed overhead.

"Turn away immediately," Mithak again warned the boat as it bounced over the waves with four heavily armed men now visible above the swell, just 2,000 metres from the sprawling metal mass of Khor al-Amiya oil terminal.

"If it is a suicide vessel they are probably not going to answer," the Royal Navy officer overseeing this exercise told AFP, referring to the type of attack that killed two people on the neighbouring Al-Basra platform in 2004.

Such tactics have been feared since terrorists rammed the American ship USS Cole in the Yemeni harbour of Aden in 2000, killing 17 American sailors.

Iraq′s navy is now patrolling these seas and training to confront any such attack. The economy is almost entirely dependent on oil, which delivers 98 per cent of the Iraqi government′s revenues.

"Exercise Sector Guardian" saw the skills of Mithak, who uses a single name while on duty, tested six times in little more than an hour, with the attackers altering their tactics to make the task ever harder.

After a shaky start that saw him wrongly identify a US coastguard vessel as the enemy -- rather than the speedboat -- he passed the test, having correctly neutralised the enemy that was roaring towards the platform.

The manoeuvres are a crucial test of the navy, which will soon see US Black Hawks and coalition vessels leave the area as Iraq takes back control of its sovereign waters.

The old Iraqi navy, destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War and in the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, is being rebuilt.

Its most important task is to protect the oil platforms, positioned just six miles (10 kilometres) away from each other, 60 miles off the port of Umm Qasr and sandwiched between Iranian and Kuwaiti waters.

At the end of April its sailors will take on some responsibility for safeguarding Khor al-Amiya, which alongside Al-Basra is responsible for loading 80 per cent of Iraq′s oil for export.

They will take over entirely at the end of 2011, a date which coincides with the planned withdrawal of all US soldiers from Iraq as pledged on Friday by President Barack Obama.

The pressure being placed on the navy is significant, as the stress in Mithak′s voice showed when he called out his orders.

The inexperience of the ratings means it will be a tough task for 2,000 men, although defence chiefs want this number to reach 6,500 eventually.

"It will be difficult because we have started from almost nothing," one experienced Iraqi officer said. "But I think the navy will be better than before."

Many of the sailors come from Basra and have completed up to four years at the city′s Maritime Academy.

Unable to find commercial work at sea and amid high unemployment, the navy is seen as a good option. "It is very comfortable," one rating said of his 700,000 Iraqi dinar (630-dollar) monthly salary.

"But it′s just a job to me," he added. "I′m not sure if I will stay for any more than a few years."

Another sailor, still buzzing from firing practice in which he sent hundreds of machine-gun bullets ripping into the ocean, was more upbeat.

"In Saddam′s time when you joined the academy you were guaranteed a job -- that was the good part," said Mahsin, a 25-year-old rating on Patrol Boat 103, who has two children and a wife to support in Basra.

"But the war changed all that. I wouldn′t have guessed it was for me but I am enjoying being in the navy."

The British officers training these men realise they are in a battle against time, but they think the Iraqis are improving.

"The navy is about three years behind the army in terms of its training, so there is a long way to go but they are making progress," said Captain Richard Ingram, who heads the team that has been training the sailors since late 2003.

The navy will also benefit from a huge investment in new equipment. Four new patrol boats, the first to be delivered from Italy by Iraqi sailors currently being trained there, will soon arrive.

The new fleet will also include 26 Defender patrol craft, 10 rigid inflatable boats, two offshore patrol vessels and 10 fast-attack boats, making it a well-equipped force compared to the one that existed under Saddam.

But doubts remain about whether the equipment will stay shiny when it falls into Iraqi hands.

Patrol Boat 103 is only five years old but already heavy corrosion, broken handrails and missing rivets tell a story of little maintenance and poor "ship husbandry" as the Royal Navy describes such neglect.

"We are only guests here and are not trying to teach the Iraqi lads to be like us, because they are not. But we hope we still have time to show them that kit can last if you look after it properly," one British officer said.


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