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Skimming across the Persian Gulf’s emerald waters, my 20-foot boat bouncing up and down, sending white sprays of bathwater-warm sea water onto my cheeks, is a thrill. All around me, the horizon is dotted with dozens of Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Saudi and even Iranian fishing boats, called dhows, and standing in the bow of the boat in front of me are two heavily-armed and twitchy Royal Marine Commandos from Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.
Where am I? I’m in a “rigid hull inflatable boat” (RHIB in military speak) and flitting like a bumblebee between small vessels and massive ships sent there by the U.S., the U.K. and Australia to support the Iraq war to the north. Humid and hot, the waters of this part of the the Gulf are smooth and untroubled, and this time of year sees the area full of dhows, commercial trawlers and massive oil tankers. And in the middle of it all: Iraq’s oil lifelines to the world: the Al Basra Oil Terminal (ABOT) and the Khawr al Amaya Oil Terminal (KAAOT), which the Navy pronounce “A-Bot” and “Kay-Ott.”
The Coalition’s mission in the Persian Gulf is neither hidden nor subtle. The flotilla of Coalition ships — including the Australian frigate the HMS Anzac, the American guided missile destroyer Chung-Hoon and the logistical ships the RFA Bedivere (Royal Navy) and the USS Rushmore, as well as nimble patrol boats and Coast Guard cutters — patrol around the two Iraqi oil terminals just off the coast of Iraq, where the Shatt al-Arab and the Khor Abd Allah waterways dump millions cubic meters of silt-heavy freshwater into the salt sea of the Gulf every second. The vessels, as part of Combined Task Force 158, are there to protect the oil.
The oil terminals, to be exact, and if you ask the various commanders — which I did — it’s a noble mission. More than 90 percent of Iraq’s GDP passes through these oil terminals. (One skipper said that $11,000 per second passed through the terminals.) “We’re really pushing to build an environment of security and stability in Iraq,” said Cmdr. Jim Aiken, 40, who captains the Chung-Hoon. The oil Is the foundation of the economy, he said, and without a strong economy, no democracy can ever develop there.
But It’s not a mission without risks. There are threats to the oil terminals from jihadis. In April 2004, two petty officers from the USS Firebolt, a 174-foot-long patrol boat, were killed when they attempted to intercept a dhow that was bearing down on KAAOT. The dhow exploded, killing the two Navy men as well as a Coast Guardsman. Another dhow, in apparent coordination, was bearing down on ABOT but exploded before it could reach its target. Then there’s the worry that an explosive-laden tanker could go for one of the terminals, a strike that would devastate the Iraqi economy and the environment of the Gulf. And finally, Iran. Remember those twitchy commandos from the Royal Navy I mentioned? They were twitchy because the March capture of the “UK 15,” as they’re called here, by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy is still fresh on everyone’s mind. No one wants a repeat performance, especially since the IRGC Navy has tried to grab other groups before.
The Iranians are a constant presence in the Gulf, which is natural considering its long coastline on the Gulf. And not far from KAAOT, they’ve made a naval base on a crane that sunk during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. (Part of it still sticks up out of the water.) You can see it with the naked eye and American commanders say the Iranians are conducting recon ops on the Coalition forces.
The Iranian Navy gets some respect from Aiken and other commanders, who told me that when passing through the bottleneck to the Gulf called the Strait of Hormuz, a passing Iranian Navy ship presented colors and her sailors saluted, holding fast to naval traditions the world over. But the IRGC Navy is a different story. The Coalition sailors I spoke with called them thugs and accused them of basically running a protection racket on dhows that venture into their part of the Gulf.
The UK 15 happened when the British were in command of CTF 158. On July 17, the Americans resumed command. Something like Iran’s sailor snatch “will not happen on our watch,” Aiken said. “And we have a code of conduct.”
What does that mean? I asked. Aiken kind of hemmed and hawed, but eventually let me know that, unlike the British, the Americans will shoot back. I let the implications of a shooting incident between the Americans and the Iranians sink in for a minute. It’s hard to imagine that Iran would take it as anything less than an official “act of war.” Then I asked: So, how long are you going to be here?
It’s a key question, considering the food fight going on in Congress right now over the role of U.S. forces in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said recently that Iraqi Security Forces could take over “any time,” which kind of undercut President Bush’s assertion that the U.S. had to stay in order to shore up the government, promote democracy, blah blah. Maliki the next day clarified his remarks and said he hoped Iraqis would take over the security of the country by the end of the year. But what about the oil terminals? How’s the training of the Iraqi Navy and Marines going?
“We have no plans for us to leave any time soon,” Aiken said. Another commander told me the Iraqis would be able to take over “between sooner and later.” (He was being serious.) Capt. Paul Severs, commander of the Combined Task Group 158.1, which provides 24-hour protection of the terminals, told me it was “not appropriate” for him to comment on whether Iraqis were meeting benchmarks in a timely fashion, what those benchmarks were or whether they would be able to take over in any kind of timely fashion.
Nor was I allowed to talk to Iraqis. It had not been cleared, I was told, although when I encountered some Iraqi Marines on their end of KAAOT — which resembles a bullet-chewed set from “Waterworld” — they merely told me it was “good” that they were there. No translators were made available to me and my Arabic isn’t good enough (i.e., non-existent) to get too deep into it. It was a frustrating encounter for all sides, no doubt.
But as the sun set over KAAOT and the call to prayer echoed over the rig’s loudspeakers, a gentle breeze blew. The crushing, sopping humidity earlier in the day was lifting and the evening was almost pleasant. I was almost able to forget the war raging just 15 km or so to the north… Almost. But I was never able to forget the smell of the oil.
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:54 AM | Permalink
Today, a year ago, I was witness to what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would come to call “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
I was in Jerusalem, covering the abduction of the Israeli solider, Gilad Shalit, by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip for Time Magazine. Word soon came filtering down from the north on July 12, 2006. Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite group, had captured two soldiers and killed three others. Three other reporters and I rushed up to Israel’s Northern Command. On the first day, Israel had launched a fierce series of airstrikes against Hezbollah positions and infrastructure, bombing three to five bridges “and more,” said Col. Boaz Cohen, chief of operations for Israel’s Northern Command. I remember asking Cohen if the list of targets would grow, to include targets in Beirut.
“Wait and see,” he said.
The next morning, I woke up to Katuysha rocket strikes just a few hundred meters from the bed and breakfast where we’d found rooms and the news that Beirut’s airport had been bombed.
My emotional reaction was complex. I had just moved to Lebanon from Iraq a few months before and had started dating a Lebanese woman. But I was in New York on 9/11, too. I heard the first plane snarl over my apartment before hitting the tower. Now, seeing the destruction at Beirut’s international airport on TV, my reaction was the same, instinctual: My home was being attacked – I had to get back.
The Lebanese will take this in stride, having endured worse at the hands of numerous enemies, but this is only the first day of what looks to be a prolonged attack. The shutting down of Hariri International Airport will hit hard on the economy. This is the high tourist season and many Gulf tourists with their Gulf money will either be unable to get in or flee through Damascus – although the road to Damascus has been bombed. The IDF has said a naval blockade is in effect and all ships entering and leaving Lebanon’s ports will be stopped. Israel is trying to box Lebanon – and Hezbollah – in.
This will have serious repercussions in Lebanese politics. It could start another civil war. The Shi’a overwhelmingly support Hezbollah and the other political parties of the March 14 alliance are in a bad spot. Who will reign in Hezbollah? Will Lebanon’s already fragile political arrangement collapse into a Shi’ites vs. everyone else arrangement, with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on one side and Christians, Druze and Sunnis on the other backed up by … Israel? And/or the United States and France? I’m just not sure how many Christians will turn on Hezbollah, even though they blame them for bringing the wrath of Israel down on the country.
On July 14, I raced back through Jordan and Syria via cheap taxi. Now, a year later, I see that my writings on the second day or the war were prescient. After 1,200 Lebanese and 158 Israeli deaths, 1 million displaced and 34-days of conflict, Lebanon emerged battered and bloody. Its infrastructure in the south totally was wrecked and heavily damaged in much of the rest of the country. Its economy was shot; the summer tourist season lost. It was a prelude of what was to come.
On the heels of its “divine victory,” Hezbollah began demanding more power in the cabinet, tossing aside election results of the previous year. Finally, in November, six pro-Syrian ministers walked out of the cabinet, plunging Lebanon into a political crisis that has dragged on ever since. Hezbollah and its allies claim that because they walked out of the government, it is no longer legitimate and they must form a “national unity government” that gives them veto power over decisions.
That hasn’t happened after eight months of standoffs and street demonstrations, and Lebanon today is split in two, divided between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the American-backed government coalition of Druze, Sunni and about half the Christians. Despite the destruction, the war in some ways cleared the air. Now you know what side various factions had chosen. West or East. Iran or America.
And today, also, Lebanon is once again the sandbox for all the conflicts in the Middle East. In the south, Hezbollah still growls menacingly at Israel, which snarls back like a baited bear. Jihadis traverse the Lebanese-Syrian border back and forth between Palestinian camps and Iraq. Iran and Syria, through Hezbollah, pushes back against an America that is trying to contain creeping Iranian influence. And in the north, just today, the Lebanese Army is engaged in what some say is the final push to destroy a group of al Qaeda-inspired militants. Hm. Did I miss anyone?
As I mentioned in a previous column, the Lebanese bear some responsibility for their plight: “Make no mistake: if there is a war here it will be because the Lebanese lack of trust in each other allows outside powers to manipulate them.” The Lebanese are famous for running to outside powers to settle problems between the continually bickering sects here. And Lebanon is a convenient arena for Great Powers to lock horns without bringing the conflict to their own territories. If the U.S. is willing to fight terrorism in Iraq so it doesn’t have it fight it at home, as Bush so often declares, then Iran is perfectly willing to combat American imperialism in Lebanon rather than in the suburbs of Tehran.
That’s not to say the news is all bad in the year since the war. Billions of dollars in reconstruction aid have poured into this tiny country. New asphalt mark the places where Israel bombs shredded the earth 12 months ago. More than half of the 96 bridges that were hit have been repaired or rebuilt. Electricity is close to pre-war levels and Beirut Airport is functioning well… if it’s a little on the quiet side. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is up to its full strength of 13,500 soldiers and appears to be doing a decent job keeping most of Hezbollah’s fighters back from poking the Israeli bear. (They have paid for it in blood, though. Six soldiers with the Spanish contingent died two weeks ago when their convoy was hit by a suicide bomber.)
Still, predictions of another war are rampant in the capital, but in a typically Lebanese debate, no one seems to know just who will fight it or when any attack might start. Rumors of a July 15 kickoff have raced through local media thanks a series of badly-timed U.N. reports on the nature of arms smuggling into Lebanon and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who “everybody knows” was killed by Syria. (The “everybody knows” argument is one that’s hard to counter. Once a meme gets rooted in here, it’s accepted as gospel.) Syria has reportedly told its citizens to leave Lebanon by July 15, although Syria has also denied this. Who knows?
People are scared. And they’re angry. Just today, en route to my gym, my taxi driver, from the southern town of Tibnine, in Hezbollahistan in the south, went into, well, a tirade about how he doesn’t like America because it sold the bombs to Israel. I got out of the cab before my stop. Another story: A family rented a villa up the coast and had some problems with their neighbor’s plumbing that was pooling water in the family’s back yard. The father went to the neighbor as a courtesy and said the management was going to fix the guy’s plumbing so it wasn’t causing a problem. No fault intended, just an FYI. The neighbor got his back up and accused the father of deliberately leaving an orange towel out to provoke the neighbor. What’s provocative? Orange is the color of Gen. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which is allied with Hezbollah. The neighbor is Druze and connected to the Progressive Socialist Party, which is allied with the government. The father was gobsmacked that politics had entered even this minor dispute.
Perhaps most telling, there’s even disagreement here over the length of the war. Hezbollah supporters will often say it’s a 33-day war, while others — myself included — call it a 34-day war. It’s a significant distinction, indicating whether the war started on July 12, when Hezbollah captured the two Israeli soldiers, or on July 13, when Israel struck Beirut’s airport. One view holds Hezbollah responsible for starting it, another blames Israel. Who is right?
If the Lebanese can’t even agree on the same date for the start of the last war – if they can’t have a common history, in other words – how can they have a common country?
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 1:56 AM | Permalink