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.