by Austin Bay
July 6, 2005
NORTHERN PERSIAN GULF, AL BASRAH OIL TERMINAL -- Desert and
ocean -- sand and salt -- literally collide in the brown-white haze above
the blue water of the Persian Gulf.
It's noon, 109 degrees, and I'm standing next to a U.S. Navy
petty officer who mans a machine gun on the Al Basrah Oil Terminal's (ABOT)
shade-less upper deck, 16 miles off the Iraqi mainland. ABOT's the tight
spot where oil and water meet, if not quite mix.
The petty officer adjusts his camouflage boonie hat and points
toward the horizon. "Alfa sector," he says. Two kilometers west of ABOT, the
cruiser USS Normandy shimmers in the haze as it slowly patrols the maritime
exclusion zone around "Iraq's terror target No. 1."
"Terror target No. 1" is a big-time claim, but then ABOT and its
decrepit cousin, KAAOT -- Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal -- are huge oil
spigots. In the last six months, ABOT has pumped 270 million barrels of
crude into oil tankers -- and put roughly $14 billion into Iraq's desperate
"We feel like we're guarding Iraq's economy," the Normandy's
commander, Capt. Stephen Hampton, told me before I took the boat ride from
his cruiser to ABOT.
Originally designed to protect the fleet from Soviet aircraft,
and now capable of firing anti-ballistic missiles, super-cruisers like the
Normandy have become high-tech and low-tech counter-terror warriors. Stroll
the Normandy's deck, and you'll find twin-50-caliber machine guns
reminiscent of World War II PT boats. The cruiser also sports 25 mm chain
guns like those found on Army Bradley armored vehicles. "The machine guns
maybe lower-tech than our other systems," Hampton observed, "but they are
the right tech for stopping small boats."
He meant small boats manned by terrorists -- speedboats or dhows
that could target coalition naval vessels or the oil terminals. "If it's a
choice between my ship and ABOT," Hampton said tersely, "I'll put my ship
between the terrorist boat and the oil terminal. This mission's that
ABOT's decks and skeletal metal walkways have an impressive
arsenal of heavy infantry weapons -- machine guns, an automatic cannon, 40
mm automatic grenade launchers. Bullet holes and shrapnel scars in ABOT's
sheds and catwalks give the maze-like terminal a post-apocalypse feel -- the
holes are lethal graffiti left by Navy SEALs who attacked the terminal in
2003. Approximately two-dozen sailors from the Navy's Mobile Security
Detachment 25 man ABOT's observation posts. Today, four Iraqi marines are
also on the terminal.
Yes, Iraqi marines. By early 2006, there will be a battalion of
them assigned to protect oil platforms and port facilities.
"We're training them to take over the defense mission," Navy Lt.
Cmdr. Christopher Jacobsen tells me. Jacobsen, from Incline Village, Nev.,
commands the sailors defending ABOT. "We're training about a platoon of
Iraqis every week. Training them on how to integrate with coalition naval
forces in the area."
Integrate is a key word. The Iraqi marine on the other side of
the deck certainly knows how to handle his machine gun. Effective
integration, however, means communicating with coalition naval forces and
using intelligence data.
"Your sailors' positions remind me of Army roadblocks in
Baghdad," I say. "Except you face boats with bombs, not cars."
The husky Jacobsen replies with a grim smile. "We're the last
line of defense. But there are a lot of ships out there watching. And
A 3-kilometer maritime exclusion zone surrounds ABOT, but KAAOT
gets tricky. "It's right on the Iranian border," Jacobsen says, pointing
U.S. and Iranian relations around the terminals are "courteous
and professional." Those are the words of Australian Commodore Steve
Gilmore, commander of coalition naval operations in the northern Persian
Gulf. Gilmore --the Australian equivalent of a one-star rear admiral -- has
his headquarters on board the Normandy. "The Iranian Navy is a professional
force, and they understand our mission," Gilmore replied when I asked about
Iran. "We respect them and their rights, as well."
Iraqi marines will eventually replace American sailors defending
ABOT. But the proximity of Iran, and the threat of water-borne terrorists,
means coalition naval forces will remain "on call" for several years.