UMM QASR, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s fledgling navy of battered patrol boats is bulking up for a greater role in protecting the country’s economic heart, its offshore oil terminals, officials said.
Putting on muscle to protect the two terminals that account for 90 percent of Iraq’s revenues, the tiny navy is aiming to boost manpower by about a third to 2,500 in two years and greatly expand its fleet, now centered on five Chinese-made Predator patrol boats.
More control over its wreck-ridden waters at the head of the Gulf is another sign of Iraq’s determination to secure its oil infrastructure and reserves, the world’s third largest.
A military crackdown three months ago on Shi’ite militias restored government control over Basra province, site of the navy’s riverside base at Umm Qasr.
“We’re continuing to work year by year on what will come next. The Iraqi navy will be transformed into something bigger than it is now,” operations chief Commodore Ahmed Maarij, a 25-year navy veteran, told Reuters on Monday.
The navy’s goal is to take on more duties from U.S., British and Australian warships that now patrol the two terminals, the al-Basra facility, capable of loading four tankers, and the single-berth Khur al-Amaya.
The fleet’s tiny size means only one Iraq vessel at a time can make the four-hour voyage out of the muddy Khur Abdullah waterway to the terminals to join the patrol.
Iraqi marines, also expanding under the navy growth program, are stationed on the terminals.
“That is the key strategic piece. They are the maritime heartbeats of Iraq,” said Captain Phil Warwick of Britain’s Royal Navy. Warwick is head of a U.S.-British team training and assisting the Iraq navy and marines.
The oil terminals’ vulnerability was underscored in 2004 when suicide bombers launched boat attacks that killed three U.S. sailors.
The navy also has a major role in security at Umm Qasr, entry point for 80 percent of Iraq’s imports and running at capacity since the military crackdown in Basra improved security. Iraqi marines provide land security for the port.
Under the expansion plan, Iraq is buying 15 patrol boats from Malaysia, set to arrive in July 2009, and five patrol ships from Italy, along with other equipment. The purchases are to be completed in 2011.
“Essentially, we’re going to double the size of the navy overnight. And for any navy, or any armed force, that’s quite a challenge,” said Lieutenant Commander Charles Maynard of the Royal Navy, the training group’s operations officer.
With a desert wind kicking up a chop on the Khur Abdullah waterway, Iraqi sailors aboard the patrol boat Sorraq drilled on intercepting boats, putting out an engine fire and raising and cleaning the anchor and chain.
Many of those training were in their 30s or older, veterans who had served in the navy under Saddam Hussein.
“Some of the crew are going to get to go to other countries to train on the new ships. Everybody is excited about that,” said Sergeant Kadhim Zubair, 42, who ran the training session.