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 treasury.
"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 important."
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 aircraft."
A 3-kilometer maritime exclusion zone surrounds ABOT, but KAAOT gets tricky. "It's right on the Iranian border," Jacobsen says, pointing toward Iran.
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.