Page last updated at 09:38 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 10:38 UK

Iraqis gear up for 'Waterworld' duty

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Defence Correspondent

Coalition training teams are there indefinitely

As the bulk of British forces prepare to leave Basra, not all can look forward to going home.

Just under 400 British military personnel will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

Among them are coalition headquarters staff, those training Iraqi officers outside Baghdad, and the Royal Navy and Royal Marines training their Iraqi counterparts in the south of the country: rebuilding an Iraqi Navy largely destroyed by the coalition in 2003 and 1991.

At the Iraqi naval base by the port of Umm Qasr, the coalition naval training teams (or CNaTTs for short), are expected to continue their work for as long as the Iraqi government wants them to.

The duration of their mission will depend on a memorandum of understanding due to be signed between the Iraqi and the British government.

Since 2003, the naval training has gone on largely unsung, conducted today by around 80 coalition staff, including 55 from the UK.

"I would say a lot of progress has been made," says Captain Richard Ingram of the Royal Navy, the commanding officer of the Coalition Naval Advisory Training team.

"It is very rewarding. The Iraqi Navy has made great strides, though there is a lot of growth to come as well - and some exciting times ahead with new ships coming in for the Iraqi Navy."

We are here to guard against any threat against the platforms themselves, and their ability to pump oil from the platforms
Commander Mark Southorn, HMS Richmond.

The tasks the Iraqi Navy is being trained to take on are crucial for the nation's future.

Its main role will be to ensure the security of Iraq's two offshore oil terminals in the North Arabian Gulf, which generate between 80 and 90% of Iraq's revenues.

It must also protect Umm Qasr, the country's only deep water sea port through which 80% of the country's imports arrive, as well as policing and defending Iraq's coast and territorial rights where the waterway border is in dispute - and prevent smuggling in Iraqi waters.

'Mini-city'

To see the training for ourselves, we set out at dawn for the three-hour journey in a small Iraqi naval patrol boat that belches out fumes as it takes us to the oil terminals.

With us are sailors from the Royal Navy, who use the time to train their Iraqi counterparts to strip down the weapons on board.

At last we arrive at the bigger of the two platforms, the Al Basra Oil terminal, which feels like a mini-city - with nothing but sea, sky and seabirds all around.

Next to it are three large tankers filling up with up to two million barrels of oil each.

 Khaw Al Amaya oil terminal
The Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal is nicknamed 'Waterworld'

For now, it is American sailors and marines who guard the terminal, with help from the Iraqi Navy, although the aim is to hand on that task to the Iraqis alone as soon as they are ready.

A US coastguard vessel takes us on to the smaller terminal, the Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal or KAAOT, not far from Iranian waters. It is a rusting hulk built by a British company in the 1950s.

The platform has been nicknamed 'Waterworld' by its inhabitants, after the film of the same name. Standing on board - watching the sea foaming below through the walkways - feels exactly like being a survivor at the end of the world.

KAAOT is bullet-holed and battered, after the Iranians once claimed it as their own some years ago, which apparently led to an Iraqi air-strike on the platform to rid it of the occupying Iranian military contingent.

Later, a fire destroyed some of the accommodation on board. Its burnt-out skeleton still stands several storeys high.

For six months, KAAOT is home for Captain Karl van Deusen of the US Navy who is commanding the Coalition Task Group on the platforms. He seems surprisingly cheerful about his isolated, unorthodox surroundings.

"Looks aren't everything," says the Captain with a wry smile, as he shows us around. "It is actually a very stable platform - it's just gone through some rough times. There is a plan for rebuilding, and this is one of those vital pieces that will make sure that future happens for the Iraqi people."

I ask him whether the US presence on the oil platforms rather confirms the suspicion that the war in Iraq was about oil, but he gracefully ducks the question.

"The war is about a lot of things, and that's really outside our role to define it," he tells me.

"What we are here for is to defend this critical infrastructure, and set the conditions for transition to the Iraqis, and we're here to deter any other aggression that might appear in the area."

HMS Richmond operations room
British sailors help to enforce an exclusion zone around the oil platforms

Instead, he invites us into a portable building that doubles as a dining room, for coffee, cookies and ice-cream.

The sailors and marines on board both platforms are well-provisioned, even if their posting is far from civilisation. There is even a well-equipped gym on each, where the marines spend much of their time training in the open air.

Keeping watch from the seas a mile or so away is a British ship, HMS Richmond, a Type 23 Duke class frigate with a crew of 190 on board.

She is part of the combined task force operating as part of the Iraqi Maritime mission, and helps enforce the 3,000 metre exclusion zone around the platforms 24 hours a day.

Sailors on board also keep a wary eye on a nearby Iranian watchtower, based on a sunken crane in the seas - which in turn presumably keeps a watch on them.

So what sort of threats is the ship guarding against - the Iranians, or insurgents?

"All sorts of threats - you may have heard there was an incident back in April 2004, when one of these fishing boats unfortunately turned out to be something rather more sinister, and several sailors lost their lives," says Commander Mark Southorn, commanding officer of HMS Richmond.

Physical training

He is referring to the last attempted attack on the platform, when a boat blew itself up, killing US sailors and coastguards, though doing no damage to the oil terminals.

"We are here to guard against any threat against the platforms themselves, and their ability to pump oil from the platforms."

Back on land at the Naval Base, Iraqi marines are being put through their paces doing physical training in the midday heat.

They are a mixed bunch, and as one US Marine trainer admits over a coffee, not always obvious marine material in a nation that has no marine tradition.

Iraqi Marines training
Iraqi Marines take part in a physical training session

The most recent recruits have been sent from the Iraqi army to boost numbers - and instilling a marine ethos in some is proving a challenge for their British and American mentors.

I watch as one older Iraqi recruit in his forties sits out the PT session, and laughingly points at his pot belly, shaking his head at the very thought of press-ups.

Indoors, another group is learning English - slowly grasping the technical words needed for fire-fighting on board a ship.

Two of the Iraqi sailors are due to come to the UK for further naval training. Safah says he is enjoying the lessons, and is looking forward to coming to Dartmouth.

He has never left Iraq before. Hassanin says his Royal Navy teacher, Robin Saville-Butler, has taught him much already, and that their training is much appreciated.

The aim is to have two battalions, each 700-strong. With a force of just under two thousand men, the Iraqi Navy is still a small unit.

But within a year or so, it should be able to protect the oil platforms, the lifeblood of Iraq's economy, and already it has patrol boats, defenders and 10 new RHIBs (rigid hull inflatable boats).

As we leave, it strikes me that there is something of an irony here. At the back of the naval base is a veritable ships' graveyard, with the blackened remains of Saddam Hussein's Navy lying amid the scrap - much of it destroyed not only in the Iran-Iraq war but also by the very same coalition that is now rebuilding Iraq's maritime forces.



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