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Almost the entire economy of Iraq depends on one product: oil. And most of Iraq's crude flows through one place: a rusted hulk that lies about 30 miles off Iraq's tiny coastline. It's the Al-Basrah Oil Terminal at the head of the Persian Gulf.

Built decades ago, it has barely been maintained and it's been nearly destroyed more than once. NPR's J.J. Sutherland recently journeyed to this fragile and vital facility.

J.J. SUTHERLAND: It's a three-hour boat ride to the platform from Iraq's only deepwater port.

On the way there, Oday al-Quarishi stands on the bridge of an aging Iraqi navy boat. He's the project manager for the Southern Oil Company. He's in charge of making sure the oil can flow. He's worked for the company for 28 years. As we pass the hulks of dozens of ships sunk in one war or another, Quarishi remarks he's had to rebuild the oil infrastructure here more than once.

Mr. ODAY AL-QUARISHI (Southern Oil Company): We (unintelligible) miracle because the whole industry (unintelligible) has been destroyed in 1991. I mean it was first in 19- (unintelligible) we rebuilt it, then in 1999 burned to the ground. Then we - about again in 2003, rebuilt it again with the help of other nations. All what we have done, just rebuilding what we have.

SUTHERLAND: And then, after hours in the water, the Al-Basrah Oil Terminal looms from the waters of the Gulf. The first impression is size. It is a bare metal structure that stretches seven-tenths of a mile. It rises hundreds of feet in the air. Steel tubes as wide as a man is tall surface from the depths. The second impression is rot.

(Soundbite of sirens)

SUTHERLAND: As the naval boat clumsily docks at the platform beside four massive supertankers, the rot hits your nose. Trash is thrown into the water. Waste laps gently at ramshackle metal platforms that seem equal parts rust and steel. The stink of petroleum gases and exhaust fills the air. The impression of decay only gets worse once you start walking the platform's plank.

Commander RICHARD BALZANO (United States Navy): If you have a look around, you'll see all kinds of shell marks and bullet holes and a lot of different things.

SUTHERLAND: Commander Richard Balzano of the U.S. Navy is stationed here. He blames most of damage on Iraq's eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.

Commander BALZANO: Iran-Iraq War, as I understand it, I don't know that we did any of this damage when we occupied the premises back in the beginning of the war. I don't think we did. We knew that it was important and we tried to not damage the infrastructure.

SUTHERLAND: The steel mesh of the platform flooring looks like it has been melted in places. Rough holes are melted through, more leftovers of some war. But it's unclear if this place ever really had better days.

Commander BALZANO: And you'll see that in some places it's almost scary. But if you look at some of the, they have done some upgrades, like right here, coming up here. They didn't even have a way of metering how much oil they were putting into the ships before.

SUTHERLAND: The oil pumps work 24/7/365 filling the tankers that come. It takes days just to fill one of the behemoths.

Commander BALZANO: There's four terminals. We're coming up on the first two terminals here. And the terminal, it's only capable of pumping two ships at a time. It has four giant pipelines that service the terminal from shore. But they're so corroded and they haven't been maintained, so they can only pressurize two of them.

SUTHERLAND: The Iraqi authorities worry that the pipelines will burst if they try to pump more oil through them. Commander Balzano and his men have installed some things - bathrooms, for instance. The Iraqis guarding the platform used to just go wherever they stood. The Americans have put in some generators as well, and some new switching to ensure sparks don't set off explosions. There are other dangers though.

I was just wondering how you convince the Iraqis not to smoke.

Commander BALZANO: We don't. They do. We can't stop it. It's actually a very contentious thing because it's dangerous. But - and you can't just stop them. This is theirs. This isn't ours. We're here helping them, but...

SUTHERLAND: For now though, American and British forces defend the terminal. It's the most important cog in the entire Iraqi economy. The bulk of Iraq's oil flows through here.

Captain Keith Blount is the British commander of the Oil Terminals Defense Forces. He has men manning machine guns, U.S. Coast Guard cutters, and a frigate or a destroyer from the Fifth Fleet on station at all times, all to protect this one installation.

Captain KEITH BLOUNT (British Navy): It's a strategic place. There's no doubt about that, 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.

SUTHERLAND: At the moment, the focus is on turning those duties over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible. Captain Blount says they have to be ready by December. That's when the Iraqi government will take over security for the oil terminal.

J.J. Sutherland, NPR News.

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