Aging Oil Terminal Vital To Iraq's Economy

The most important cog in Iraq's economy is a rusted hulk in the Persian Gulf, 30 miles off of Iraq's coast.

The bulk of Iraq's crude oil flows through the aging Al-Basrah Oil Terminal, where oil pumps run around the clock, 365 days a year filling giant oil tankers.

American and British forces protect the terminal. Troops are stationed on the offshore facility as Coast Guard and naval vessels patrol the area.

"This is a strategic place, and it needs to be protected. And that's why we're here, and that's why we're going to stay here, until the Iraqis can protect it themselves," says British Capt. Keith Blount, commander of the oil terminal's defense forces.

Blount says that the Iraqi forces have to be ready by December, when the Iraqi government is scheduled to take over security for the terminal.

Age, War Takes Toll On Terminal

Oday al-Quarishi has worked for Iraq's Southern Oil Company for 27 years. As project manager, his job is to make sure that oil continues flowing through the terminal.

It is easier said than done. Over the years, the terminal has been damaged, and almost destroyed.

"If you have a look around, you'll find a lot of shell marks and bullet holes," he says. In some places, the steel mesh of the platform looks like it has been melted.

U.S. Navy Cmdr. Richard Balzano, who is stationed at the facility, says most of the damage occurred during the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988.

Improvements Since U.S.-Led War

Since the start of the war in Iraq in 2003, Balzano and his men have tried to repair the terminal, and to make other improvements, including rest rooms.

Previously, Iraqi guards used to go wherever they stood on the platform. And at what seems like great risk, many of the Iraq employees continue to smoke cigarettes as they work.

The Americans also have installed power generators, and there are some new switching mechanisms, to ensure that sparks do not trigger explosions.

There are still plenty of problems, though. The facility does not operate at full capacity because several of the giant pipelines that service the terminal from the shore are dangerously corroded.

"You've got an economy underpinned by the oil industry," Bount says. "And this is the biggest outlet for that industry."

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