Coalition Forces Watch Over Iraq's Oil Platforms In the southern waters off Iraq, the patrol ship USS Whirlwind keeps a constant vigil over two offshore oil-transfer platforms that are indispensable to Iraq. Some sailors call them the crown jewels. U.S. naval personnel work together with Iraqi marines to protect the platforms.
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Coalition Forces Watch Over Iraq's Oil Platforms

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Coalition Forces Watch Over Iraq's Oil Platforms

Coalition Forces Watch Over Iraq's Oil Platforms

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Saddam Hussein is back in court today. Defense witnesses are taking the stand, testifying on behalf of one of his seven codefendants. Lawyers for some of the lower-level codefendants say their clients were not involved in the crime for which they are standing trial: the massacre of 148 people in the town of Dujail in 1982.

On the political front, Iraq's newly named prime minister is said to be close to naming a cabinet. The deadline for that is Monday. And we turn now to efforts to protect Iraq's most valuable commodity.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports that in the southern waters off Iraq, U.S. and coalition forces are facing unique challenges in trying to keep the oil there safe.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

On board the USS Whirlwind, the Navy patrol ship, it's much like any other day in the northern Persian Gulf. Sailors are busy with never-ending maintenance. Inside the pilothouse, the crew keeps an eye on other vessels out on the calm waters; to the west is Kuwait, to the east Iran, and to the north Iraq. The tranquility of the day is suddenly broken when a small boat is spotted moving into a no-go area.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #1: We have a Novak(ph) outside Alpha Sector One; 4,000 meters from land, over.

(Soundbite of alarm)

Unidentified Man #2: All right, give me a level one warning and a…

NORTHAM: The sailors on board Whirlwind drop what they're doing and begin to take up position beside machine guns mounted along the sides of the craft. They wait and watch while officers give the small boat another warning.

Unidentified Man #3: Unknown vessel, you are in the excursion zone of the Al-Basra Oil Terminal. Turn away immediately or I will use deadly force.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

NORTHAM: The small craft barrels ahead, weaving around the Whirlwind, until finally…

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible), release for disabling fire!

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

(Soundbite of sailors chanting)

Unidentified Man #5: (unintelligible) Sector 1 approaching 2,100 meters.

NORTHAM: Then a code word is called out; and as fast as the tension built, it stops. This is a training exercise, one that's regularly performed by the U.S. Navy in this part of the Persian Gulf. The purpose is to protect two nearby offshore oil terminals that belong to Iraq.

Lt. Bob Hatfield(ph), the Captain of the Whirlwind, says the terminals were attacked two years ago by suicide bombers.

Lieutenant BOB HATFIELD (Captain, USS Whirlwind, U.S. Navy): They took regular fishing dowels and they loaded them up with explosives. Making it look like they were fishing, they went out and got in the middle of all the fishermen and then they turned inbound.

NORTHAM: Two U.S. Navy boats were directed to check out the dowels that were heading towards the oil terminals.

Lt. HATFIELD: They knew they weren't going to get to the oil platform, so they exploded the boat and actually killed a couple of sailors and a Coast Guardsmen.

NORTHAM: The two oil transfer platforms are vulnerable behemoths that emerge from the relatively shallow water about 12 miles from the southern shores of Iraq. They're indispensable to Iraq. Some sailors call them the crown jewels.

Lt. Commander KEN MILLER(ph) (U.S. Navy): These large pipes, this is where the oil is actually flowing through and into the vessels. If you actually put your hand up to them, you'll feel that they're warm. The oil's warm and it helps it flow.

NORTHAM: Lt. Commander Ken Miller says that's the sound of money pumping through the pipes, which crisscross the Al-Basra Oil Terminal, known as ABOT. Four supertankers nuzzle up to the platform, waiting to take on their loads. Commander Miller leads a naval mobile security squadron on ABOT and at sister terminal KAOT, the Khawr Al-Amaya Oil Terminal, which was built in the 1950s.

Miller strides the three-quarter-mile length of ABOT, pointing out evidence of its turbulent history.

Lieutenant Commander MILLER (U.S. Navy): If you will walk around the platform, occasionally you will see bullet holes and small damage from previous wars with Iran and also from the first Gulf War, when it was boarded by naval special warfare forces. The other platform has much more severe damage and that is strictly from the Iran-Iraq War. You will see the southern part of that platform has pretty much been reduced to rubble, really.

NORTHAM: U.S. Naval personnel work together with Iraqi Marines on the oil platforms. On ABOT, the Iraqis live in a large building at one end, called the White House, which has sleeping quarters and a mess hall. At the other end of the platform, the Americans live in converted cargo containers piled three-high. Their meals are sent over from the main ship. Internet is intermittent, and the platforms are fully exposed to the ferocious heat.

Captain Chris Noble, head of the joint task force in the area, says it's a grueling assignment, but security of the terminals is essential to Iraq's future. Noble says that 85 percent of Iraq's oil, the essence of the country's economy, currently flows through the ABOT platform.

Captain CHRIS NOBLE (U.S. Navy): Well it's pretty much all of their oil, right now. And the main product they have to offer the rest of the global community is this oil. And the pretty much established figure is around $10 billion worth a year comes out of there.

NORTHAM: Noble says there are more than a dozen rehearsed contingency plans for attacks against the two platforms, by air or sea.

It's not solely an American effort. A joint task force that includes British and Australian Navies also help secure the platforms and train the Iraqi Navy.

Captain PATRICK ROANE (USS Lake Champlain, U.S. Navy): You're the - you're the chief of the ship.

Unidentified Man #6: Yes.

Capt. ROANE: But that's the captain?

Unidentified Man #6: (Unintelligible)

Capt. ROANE: Very good to meet you. Thank you for hosting us today. All right, I'm going to step over here. Maybe you can make more room.

NORTHAM: Captain Pat Roane of the USS Lake Champlain pays his first visit to a small Iraqi patrol boat, one of half a dozen owned by the fledgling Iraqi Navy. The boat is five years old; it was built while Saddam Hussein was still in power, but only delivered after the Americans invaded.

No one in the Iraqi Navy is permitted to talk on record. But like any Navy man, the Iraqi captain is eager to show his boat to a visitor.

Unidentified Man #7 (Iraqi Navy Captain): This here is the galley. This is where we eat and drink and watch the television.

Capt. ROANE: This is your crew's mess…

Unidentified Man #7: Galley. Yes.

Capt. ROANE: …and a combination for the entire crew.

Unidentified Man #7: Yes. This room crew.

Capt. ROANE: For (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #7: Crew, yes. Where they sleep.

Capt. ROANE: Only - that's why you're limited to eight people. There are only eight-man berthing.

Unidentified Man #7: Yes, they fall asleep now.

NORTHAM: Capt. Roane is polite, but it's obvious he's also checking out how the Iraqi Navy equipment looks. Afterwards, he gives a quick assessment, saying the modern electronics and the diesel engine of the Iraqi vessel look good. But, Roane says, the boat hasn't had any regular maintenance, and other, less obvious problems are looming on the horizon.

Capt. ROANE: There's no routine training of new personnel. There's no reliable supply of spare parts that's available to them. It takes money and it takes time to build that up. We can't expect them to buy an entire warehouse full of parts that'll sustain that Navy for ten years overnight.

NORTHAM: Or deal with all the challenges in the northern Persian Gulf.

Capt. Roane says that even now, the Iranian Navy regularly intrudes several hundred yards into Iraqi waters and that the coalition forces have to keep telling the Iranians, No.

Capt. ROANE: We're working international law and we're working with the coalition to say, that's where the border is. Don't take advantage of turmoil in Iraq to use that to Iran's advantage.

NORTHAM: Capt. Roane won't say when coalition Naval forces will allow the Iraqi Navy to take control of its own waters. Roane says the area is still too unstable, and the oil platforms too important to Iraq.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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