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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 02:09 GMT
Port hopes to be Iraq's Rotterdam

By Paul Adams
BBC defence correspondent

A torrent of yellow grain gushes from a silo at the southern tip of this troubled country - a vivid sign of progress at a time when so much else seems to be going wrong.

Umm Qasr
The port is busy but its recovery is not yet complete
The port of Umm Qasr is Iraq's Rotterdam - or should be.

When coalition troops captured it, early in the war, they found its waters mined and full of rusting hulks.

Aid ships were quick to arrive, but it is taking longer to get Umm Qasr fully operational.

The arrival of the Norwegian-owned Banastar, with its cargo of 52,000 tons of Australian grain, was the first of its kind. The machinery needed to offload and store the grain has only just been repaired.

But the set-up is still far from perfect.

Power problems

Sabotage along power lines means that the port remains disconnected from Iraq's fractured national grid.

The grain facility, and much else besides, runs on power generated locally. When I was in the port, the fuel needed for the generators was running low.

What we need is 100% security. We can make lots of money, but the risks are high
Local trader Majed Abed
"Until they do get connected to the power grid, there's always going to be that worry of the diesel fuel showing up," says US coastguard officer, Tom White, maritime advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority (although his badge bears the rather more colourful title of deputy sheriff).

"But they'll probably get it and things will keep moving."

A short distance downstream, and Umm Qasr's old port is heaving. Here, activity is frenetic.

Trucks pour in by the hour and are quickly loaded. Ships of all sizes, from bulk carriers to traditional dhows, bring every kind of cargo, from foodstuffs to electrical goods and cars.

There is even a regular ferry service from Dubai.

Deals struck

The quayside is teeming. Businessmen on mobile phones strike deals and, despite reports that newly-appointed Iraqi customs officers are on duty, there's little or no sign of them down by the water.

In the new, barely-regulated Iraq, there is plenty of money to be made.

Umm Qasr
Umm Qasr has escaped violence blighting other parts of Iraq
"This month is very good for cargo," says Ali Abdulhussein, manager of the old port, as 3,200 sections of oil pipeline are unloaded - another first.

"It's very important for Iraq. We are busy night and day."

But while this may be good news for the traders and the drivers, the absence of law and order has its pitfalls.

Once loaded, trucks must run a gauntlet of bandits and highway robbers to get their goods into the country.


The presence of British troops at Umm Qasr imparts a sense of local security - although strictly speaking, the troops are here to guard their own logistics base, and port security is in the hands of a private company - but it does not extend far along the lawless roads of southern Iraq.

"There's something missing," says local trader Majed Abed. "What we need is 100% security. We can make lots of money, but the risks are high."

Map of Iraq
Reminders of danger are not hard to come by.

As I left Umm Qasr, British troops had taken up position on an approach road. Children had reported a suspicious object and the soldiers were checking it out.

It was probably nothing - local children have learned that calling the troops is a good way to obtain sweets - but the risks, from unexploded ordnance and would-be saboteurs, are real enough.

Umm Qasr has, so far, escaped the violence that continues to cause havoc elsewhere in Iraq.

But pre-war damage is still being repaired and wrecks are still being lifted out of the water. The port's recovery is not yet complete.


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