US, Italy shipyards in lead to build new Iraqi navy

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — US and Italian shipyards are favoured to win tenders to build 19 ships and patrol boats for the fledgling Iraqi navy to enable it to take over security of Iraq’s vital off-shore oil terminals, a naval official said.

Commodore Thamir Nasser said 15 patrol boats, four corvettes and two off-shore support vessels would be bought under a two-year equipment acquisition programme that would boost the navy’s ability to protect the platforms from terrorist attack. “I have heard a US shipyard that builds the US Coast Guard vessels and an Italian company will build the boats,” the Iraqi navy’s head of operations told Reuters, referring to the patrol boats and corvettes. He put no value on the tenders.

“By 2008/2009 we will be in a position to take control of maritime security,” he said. The Iraqi navy is critically short of seaworthy ships to patrol potential terrorist targets such as the Basra Oil Terminal and its smaller sister Khor Amaya terminal. Iraq has the world’s third largest reserves of oil.

The two platforms in the Northern Arabian Gulf are the economic centre of Iraq, pumping some 1.6 million barrels per day into the holds of tankers berthed alongside and generating most of the government’s revenues. At present they are guarded against terrorist attack by circling US, British and Australian warships and a lone Iraqi patrol boat that has to sail three hours from Umm Qasr to get to the platforms.

The navy now is in a sorry state, with most of its patrol boats and smaller fast aluminium boats (FABs) either out of action due to a fuel shortage or because they lack the necessary spare parts or expertise to repair them.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 it is being rebuilt and its sailors trained by a British-led naval team at their base in Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only “blue water” port.

Italian shipyard Fincantieri confirmed on Friday it was taking part in a tender process to build four patrol vessels worth about 80 million euros ($102.9 million) and said it believed it had a “good chance” of winning.

“The negotiations are in an advanced phase but have not yet been finalised,” said a spokesman for the shipyard, which is 98.8 per cent owned by the Italian government. The US shipyard is believed to be Bollinger Shipyards, which has built the US Coast Guard’s patrol boat fleet. The company was not immediately available for comment on Friday.

An attempt by an Iraqi state company to build patrol boats has not been successful. One of the boats failed sea trials, another still being built sits on a trestle at Umm Qasr. British officials there said they were poorly designed and unsafe.

“The Iraqi navy has been let down. The company did not know how to build a ship,” said Captain Philip Thicknesse, the Royal Navy officer in charge of training at Umm Qasr.

A visit to the base this week found four of the navy’s five patrol boats berthed because of a fuel shortage, while Thamir said just 10 of the 24 FABs and one of the 10 rigid inflatable boats were operational.

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