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On Its Own: The Iraqi Navy in 2005

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    On Its Own: The Iraqi Navy in 2005

    By David Axe

    Proceedings, August 2005

    The Iraqi Navy, probably because of its size, has taken the lead in self-sufficiency. Its core is formed around these five 28-meter Predator -class patrol boats shown in the port of Um Qasr.

    What will the shape of tomorrow's Navy and Coast Guard maritime security ship look like? Will it be the littoral combat ship (above)? Or one-or more-of three other ship designs?

    In the Persian Gulf off the Iraqi port city of Um Qasr in Basra province, in mid-June, pirates boarded a supertanker moored at one of the country's two oil platforms, apparently in an attempt to rob the ship's safe. "The alert was sounded when watchmen found three men carrying long knives, a rifle, and a machine gun onboard the vessel," a spokesman from regional shipper Gulf Agency Company told Reuters. The intruders fled after being discovered and no losses or casualties were reported. While the June incident had a positive ending, it has dark implications for security around Iraq's critical—and narrow—access to the sea. Recent months have seen a spike in piracy in Iraqi waters. Attacks were also reported in April and May.

    Royal Navy Captain Wayne Kreble, commander of a 20-man force of coalition naval advisors at Um Qasr, said the attacks contribute to a "perceived lack of security" that keeps some shippers away from Iraq. Fighting this perception—not to mention fighting the pirates themselves—is increasingly the responsibility of the reborn Iraqi Navy based at Um Qasr naval base. Originally built around a small force of Soviet-constructed fast attack craft, the Iraqi Navy was all but destroyed in the course of 12 years of war and sanctions. It was reformed in 2003 around five Taiwanese-built 28-meter Predator -class patrol boats, calling itself the Iraqi Coast Guard until December 2004, when it assumed the navy title. In early June, following months of preparation, the Iraqi Navy began maintaining a patrol boat on station in its waters around the clock. While coalition naval forces are never far away, the Iraqi boats operate alone with all-Iraqi crews trained by Iraqi instructors, making the navy the first of Iraq's security forces to achieve operational independence across the force.

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    Today the Iraqi Navy is in the throes of far-reaching changes that signal its maturation into a truly independent force, one hopefully capable of protecting the nation's ports and shipping and maintaining the sovereignty of its territorial waters, which extend 12 miles from the coast.

    For a nation with only 36 miles of coast and two ports—both on the Khawr Abd Allah channel—Iraq is disproportionately reliant on sea trade to fuel its economy. The country's handful of international highways are poorly maintained and plagued by bandits and insurgents, its rail network is in shambles, and only about half a dozen airports are capable of handling cargo flights. The bulk of Iraq's imports and exports pass through Um Qasr and Khawr Al Zubayr, both of which are managed by the Iraqi Port Authority based in Basra, about 40 miles to the north. More than 50 ships carrying American and Australian grain arrive every month. Ten miles into the Gulf beyond the mouth of the Kwahr Abd Allah, two rusty oil platforms together capable of filling five tankers simultaneously send $12 billion annually worth of crude to refineries all over the world. According to new Iraqi Transport Minister Salam Al-Malaki, port duties on cargo vessels soon will equal oil as a source of revenue for Baghdad. He said the waters and facilities around Basra comprise the "commercial capital" of Iraq. Kwahr Al Zubayr alone turns a $500,000 profit for Baghdad every month, according to Kreble.

    Currently, protection of Basra's waters and ports is the joint responsibility of the U.S.-led coalition's Combined Task Force 58 (CTF-58) and the Iraqi Navy. The task force, under the command of Royal Australian Navy Commodore Steve Gilmore aboard the USS Antietam (CG-54), provides over-the-horizon capabilities and monitors commercial and foreign military traffic in the northern Persian Gulf. CTF-58 maintains a strength of around 10 ships, including USCGC Monomoy (WPB-1326). The Iraqi Navy, with its five Predator -class boats, patrols the waters between the ports and the platforms—and does so under its own command and control and with its own logistical support. Additionally, Iraqi sailors in rigid-hull inflatable boats patrol the Khawr Abd Allah and smaller waterways.

    Reaching this level of independence has taken two years of hard training alongside coalition forces. From 2003, the Iraqi Coast Guard operated under the shadow of a coalition naval task force that included warships from the British and Danish navies and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell (WHEC-719). Meanwhile, U.S. Navy SEALs and Coast Guardsmen occupied the offshore platforms. Over time, the coalition task force moved further into the Gulf and surrendered the waters between the ports and the platforms—and most of the burden of occupying the platforms themselves—to the Iraqis. This trend was briefly reversed after an April 2004 suicide attack on the platforms that killed two U.S. sailors and one Coast Guardsman. In the wake of the attack, the coalition temporarily increased its presence on the platforms. "Soon, the responsibility of point defense on the. . . . Basra platforms will be in the Iraqi Navy," Iraqi Navy chief Commodore Muhammad Jawad said in March.

    By the time the Iraqi Coast Guard furled its colors and assumed its new identity as the Iraqi Navy in December, it had mustered a force of 600, including 200 naval infantry who guard the platforms alongside 60 U.S. sailors. This year, the navy will add six Al Uboor -class patrol boats currently under construction in Baghdad and two Assad -class corvettes that were built in Italy on a 1981 contract but embargoed following Iraq's invasion of Iran. The navy also will train 200 more naval infantry and is planning to commission several tugboat "motherships" capable of providing logistics support to the patrol craft.

    Between its renaming and operational independence in June, the navy sent observers to Arabian Gauntlet 2005 in March. The exercise involved 3,000 personnel and 19 ships from the U.S., Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman. "This is the very first time for us to be involved with many nations in the Arabian Gulf area," Iraqi Captain Thmir Naser, chief of staff at Um Qasr naval base, said in an interview.

    "We hope next year we will be more involved," said Iraqi Capt. Adel Hafith, operational commander at Um Qasr, also in March. "But right now, it is very good for us to start out just observing."

    Iraq's 36 miles of coast line and two ports of Um Qasr and Khawr Al Zubayr lie sandwiched between Kuwait and Iran. The country's two oil platforms, Kohr al Amaya and Mina al Bakr, are about ten miles offshore.

    Training with and observing coalition navies prompted Jawad this spring to issue the Iraqi Navy's first-ever rules of engagement. "In the last navy, we didn't have rules of engagement. Every man who works in my navy must know everything about the new rules," Jawad said. "I work and my navy works under law."

    On the operational side, Jawad noted, his force is focusing on sustaining a high tempo of operations and looks forward to developing its night capability this year. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Navy has been training its own recruits since at least January, when it began its first non-commissioned officer instructor training at Um Qasr. This puts the navy years ahead of its sister security forces, including the Iraqi army and police, which continue to rely heavily on coalition NCOs for instruction. Jawad, for his part, said training is the foundation of his force. "If anyone had good training, that means he has a good basic future."

    With training, re-equipping, and re-indoctrinization well underway, and having achieved operational independence, the next step for the Iraqi Navy is to expand its area of responsibility, according to Jawad. "Sometime next year, the responsibility to cover all the platforms and territory's water will be in the Iraqi Navy." Jawad said. "This is my navy. . . . This is my responsibility."

    Coalition advisors here say the relatively small size of the Iraqi Navy—no more than 800 by year's end—has facilitated its rapid rebuilding. "Given the size of the Iraqi Navy, it's a relatively easier and more straightforward issue than [Army Lieutenant General] Dave Petraeus has with the significantly larger Iraqi army force," Vice Admiral David Nichols, Fifth Fleet Commander, said in June. Petraeus is overseeing Iraqi security force training.

    Another factor in the force's quick development is the urgency of its mission. Iraq's ports and platforms are a critical bottleneck in the struggling nation's economy, making the need for a strong Iraqi Navy "quite self evident," in the words of Royal Navy Lieutenant Andrew Livsey, a member of Kreble's team. This prompted coalition forces to assign a higher ratio of advisors to local troops than other security forces.

    Despite its tiny coastline and few ports, Iraq is heavily dependent upon maritime trade. That significance is well understood by the new Iraqi Navy, including its sailors manning a small boat in the port of Um Qasr in early June.

    Kreble said that the small size of the force also makes it easier to keep unwanted influences out. Citing the widespread corruption found in Iraqi army and police ranks, he called the navy "pretty clean."

    Finally, the navy's operational goals are modest. As long as the coalition provides over-the-horizon and deeper-water capabilities, the Iraqi Navy has only the country's small territorial waters to worry about. Besides, its equipment is incapable of anything beyond a coastal, defensive role. The current mainstay of the force, the Predator patrol boats, are armed with only 12.7-mm machine guns and need new radars, according to Livsey. Despite plans to add hulls in 2005, the Iraqi Navy will remain relatively under-armed compared to even the smallest Gulf navies. It is telling that the Iraqi force has been lobbying hard for joint exercises with the Kuwaiti Navy, which with no fewer than eight 50-meter missile boats is significantly better armed than the Iraqi Navy.

    Limitations and all, the Iraqi Navy is a "success story," Kreble said. After only two years, it is independent, self-sustaining, and expanding.

    But the Iraqi Navy has never been tested the way the Iraqi army has. Real success means putting a stop to piracy off the coast—and preventing insurgent attacks like that in April 2004. Whether the navy is up to the challenge remains to be seen.

    Mr. Axe is a freelance writer from South Carolina in Iraq on assignment for The Washington Times and The Village Voice.

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