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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 07:05 GMT 08:05 UK
Rebuilding Iraq's premier port
The Sir Galahad brings the first shipment of humanitarian aid
By Mark Gregory
BBC World Service business correspondent in Iraq

Picture the scene: a desolate, sun bleached waterfront; ancient looking cranes; a few mangy dogs; and a sunken ship next to one of the docks.

All you can see is the bottom of its hull poking out of the water.

Welcome to Umm Qasr, Iraq's premier port.

Umm Qasr is just across the border from Kuwait in Southern Iraq and was one of the first places to fall to coalition forces in the war.

Main artery

Now it has become something of a testbed for the post war economic reconstruction of Iraq.

Map of Iraq

Despite it's unpromising first appearance, this place has huge potential.

Before the war, the port handled seven million tonnes of cargo a year. This week it reopened for limited commercial traffic. Humanitarian cargoes have been unloaded for several weeks.

Umm Qasr is the obvious maritime gateway for Iraq. Some say that once the Iraqi economy starts moving again, the port will come to rival Kuwait and Dubai as a major regional trade and shipping centre.

The dream is plausible but will clearly take a long time to achieve.

Umm Qasr's physical infrastructure was hardly touched in the recent fighting.

Long-term decay

A decade of international sanctions on Iraq before the war, and the lawlessness and looting that followed it, have had a much more devastating impact.

Equipment tends to be old and in poor repair.

Anything moveable that looters could lay their hands on has gone.

The first thing I noticed was lines empty of cargo containers arranged in rectangles around buildings.

They look a bit like the intricate patterns of Lego building blocks that a child might lay out on the floor.

The lines of containers, I was told, had been put up as impromptu fences to keep the looters out.

It worked. Many port buildings, though dilapidated, have survived more or less intact.

Security and dredging

That is a big improvement on the scene an hour's drive away in the oilfields around Basra, where most facilities have been trashed by looters. Even the roofs have gone.

Bombs falling near Um Qsr
Fighting did some damage but neglect did more

Building a secure perimeter fence is a major priority for the restoration of Umm Qasr port.

Another urgent task is sorting out the main shipping channel in and out of the port.

It has become narrow and shallow as silt piled up in the years of neglect and is littered with wrecks, many of them of ships that foundered in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Restoring Umm Qasr will cost at least $100m. It is unclear where the money will come from.

US construction giant Bechtel is co-ordinating the restoration, backed by a $680m contract from the US government to lick Iraq's basic infrastructure into shape.

The port itself is being run by another American firm, the docks group SSA Marine, also known as Steverdoring.

It's initial one year contract may be extended to three years. After that the port will be handed back to Iraqi managers.

The new boss

John Walsh is SSA Marine's temporary port manager, a tall, rather impressive-looking man from Savannah, Georgia.

He tells me this is the toughest assignment he's ever had. He would like to stay beyond his initial one year contract, but hasn't yet dared to broach the subject with his wife.

Mr Walsh says most of the port's 3,000-strong Iraqi workforce are back on the job, but for some there is little to do.

He would like to introduce new work methods to bring Umm Qasr up to world-class standards, but knows he must persuade the Iraqi workers. His role is temporary, he says. It is their port.

Some of the difficulties are on display at the weekly port meeting. Iraqi officials there complain that they are being excluded from decision making.

In a debate about security, one Iraqi official asked why must the Americans change everything of what he says were perfectly good procedures.

An American says that under Saddam Hussein anyone found entering the port without authorisation was shot on sight. This, he says, would be an inappropriate policy now.

Iraqis at the meeting also raise concerns about pay. But Mr Walsh says that in general relations are good, that there is trust between the coalition forces and the Iraqis.


Mr Walsh was surprised at how few actual dockers there were. Under the previous regime, he says, most staff were engineers and middle managers, while there were few to do the mucky work of handling cargo.

No Iraqi workers will lose their jobs through modernisation, he says, but many will have to adapt to different jobs, which may alienate some of them.

I ask him about policies towards staff with close links to the former regime.

He responds that he'd be a fool not to recognise that many port staff must have been members of the Baath party. Membership was essential to get skilled work.

But he believes in making a distinction between people who joined the party to get on in life or to support their family, and those who were actively committed to Saddam Hussein's regime.

They were few, and those he has seen no sign of anti-coalition or anti-American feeling, he adds.

After a few hours at the port, I came away with the feeling that while there were many problems and frustrations to be dealt with, underneath it there was a real determination on all sides to get the job done.

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