Protecting Iraq's precious oil terminals

A fleet of United States-led warships cruises northern Gulf waters with the task of protecting Iraq’s oil terminals from terror attacks that could hurt both the Iraqi economy and world oil markets.

Task Force 58, set up for the protection of Khor Al-Amaya and Basra oil terminals, is probably one of the less well-known, but nonetheless most important, missions of the coalition forces in Iraq, where oil exports account for 97% of revenues and are therefore critical to the country’s reconstruction.

The two terminals on Iraq’s southern shores are all the more vital because exports through a northern pipeline to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan remain vulnerable to attack by Iraqi insurgents.

Iraq, which has the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world after neighbouring Saudi Arabia, exported about 1,6-million barrels per day in July, mostly through its southern terminals.

Given the current surge in oil prices, a successful attack on these terminals would wreak havoc on international markets and Western economies.

Task Force 58 was created after a three-pronged suicide attack on April 24, 2004 through three boats loaded with explosives that left the assailants and three US military personnel dead.

Australian, British and US forces, who each contribute one warship to the task force, hold its rotating leadership. They are assisted by four US navy and coastguard patrol boats, as well as the fledgling Iraqi navy, to control the waters around the terminals.

The USS Chosin cruiser has been heading the force since late August.

The ships use mainly warning audio messages, recorded in Arabic and Persian, to enforce an exclusion zone of three kilometers around the two terminals to keep away Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Iranian and other fishing dhows.

“Eighty percent of the time, it has been effective,” US Lieutenant-Commander Brad Stallings told Agence France Presse aboard the US patrol boat Typhoon, which has taken up position near Khor Al-Amaya.

“If this doesn’t work, we will get close and tell them to move,” said the 38-year-old officer from Ohio.

But the coalition ships also resort to more forceful tactics.

Using small Zodiac boats, the sailors carry out raids on certain dhows to question their crews and inspect each and every tanker that comes to the terminal to load up.

They also know that they are being watched.

“I have no doubt that we are under surveillance from time to time. I have no doubt that some of the incursions we’ve seen were to see what kind of reaction we would have,” said Captain Adrian Bell (43) commander of the HMS Campbeltown, the only British warship in Task Force 58.

“Twice, I have come extremely close to firing warning shots because of the nature of the incursions,” he said in an interview aboard the British frigate.
These incursions, he added, were “a way to test the mettle of the people”.

According to Bell, it would be “a logistical and military challenge to do something here, but not impossible”.

But by and large, he said, the current situation is “fairly benign”.

The only incidents facing the US-led forces seem to be pirate attacks on dhows, a traditional occurrence in the Gulf, which coalitions ships refer to as “Ali Baba incidents.”

But such acts have drastically decreased since Task Force 58 started to police the area over a year ago.

“If you act like a gendarme at the street corner, you can keep a lid on what’s going on,” said Bell.

But the coalition forces may also suffer from being too sophisticated, using warships such as the USS Chosin, which can carry Tomahawk missiles.

“We have this huge cruiser designed for the Cold War,” US Captain Hank Miranda, current commander of the naval group deployed in the northern Gulf, told AFP aboard the USS Chosin.

“Was it designed to do this? No. Are there other weapons that would be more efficient? Yes,” he said.

This, he explains, is a situation that epitomises the challenges faced by the US navy in the post-Cold War era, where most of its missions are of a policing nature.

One thing is certain: given the economic stakes, US warships have no plans to leave the Gulf any time soon.

“I don’t think we will ever leave. We’ll always have ships here. I don’t see us leaving,” Miranda said. - Sapa-AFP

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