Naval gazing

Observations on Iraq

A few miles off the coast of Iraq, two quick seacraft dock and spill their dozen or so troops on to the USCGC Wrangell. Iraqi marines, brandishing sub-machine guns, spread across the vessel, forcing the stern-faced US Coast Guardsmen on to their knees as the young captain strides the ship looking for guns and contraband. No shots are fired, no one struggles; the Iraqis are in control. The Americans knew they were coming. This was Operation Alcatraz, a rare chance for Iraq's fledgling navy to get some experience boarding and searching a ship.

They could do with the practice. Iraq has one of the world's newest and smallest navies - just 800 sailors and marines. Yet, along with chasing off oil smugglers and pirates, they have arguably the country's most important job: to protect the Basra oil platform, which pumps 1.2 million barrels of oil a day, accounting for 80 per cent of Iraq's income and without which the already stilted reconstruction would grind to a halt.

Iraq's meagre coastline stretches just 20km along the Persian Gulf, and so most people don't realise Iraq has a navy. Even Saddam Hussein didn't think he had a navy, and called his limited fleet his "Coastal Defence Force". What does exist of Iraq's seaborne fighting force is based in the country's only port, Umm Qasr, which has the distinction of having been bombed by the Iranians, Kuwaitis and Americans. Twice.

The journey by boat slaloms through a graveyard of torpedoed, rusty tankers, while the port itself is little more than a pile of rubble skirting a dock that hosts the navy's three still-working Predator Class patrol boats. Even so, it's an improvement on a few years ago, when the navy numbered a handful of men and couldn't even leave port. "There has been a big change," insists Commodore Thamir Nasser proudly, who once pledged loyalty to the Costal Defence Force but is now second in command of the new Iraqi navy. "We're now patrolling the sea with FABs [Fast Aluminium Boats] 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to prevent smuggling and piracy and, of course, to secure the platform."

This inhospitable strip of metal, 30km from Umm Qasr, is Iraq's only effective way of getting oil out of the country. Tankers from western oil companies queue up for weeks to take advantage of the relatively cheap crude. The insurgents - knowing the site's strategic importance - tried to blow up the platform two years ago by ramming three boats laden with explosives into it, killing three US servicemen. Since then, the coalition has saturated Iraq's territorial waters while training the Iraqis to do the job themselves. "It's fundamental for the future of Iraq. I would call it the economic jewel in Iraq's crown," says Captain Tony Radakin, of the Royal Navy. "My job is to help bring the Iraqi navy and marines up to a decent standard so that they can take full responsibility for their territorial waters."

"Realistically, I think we'll need another ten years before we can be on our own," says Commodore Thamir, who has moved his family on to the Umm Qasr base after insurgents attacked his home with grenades. His British counterpart nervously interjects that he is perhaps being a little cautious. The commodore shrugs.

"Yes. OK. It will take five years. Maybe."