Features | Security | Central Asia

Guarding the Gulf

In the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf, 30 kilometres from Iraq’s coastline, the Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal squats above the Iraqi waterline.

By Sean Hobbs for

In the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf, 30 kilometres from Iraq’s coastline, the Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal squats above the Iraqi waterline. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf War, this post-apocalyptic wreck of steel and concrete has weathered mortar barrages, canon fire, missile strikes and an inferno that burnt out of control for days. Its sister terminal, the Al Basrah oil terminal, lies 10 kilometres south, bristling with heavy calibre machine guns and private security contractors after a $US67.5 million facelift. Together, they are lifelines for Iraqi oil and prized targets for insurgents.

Royal Australian Navy Captain, Phil Spedding, who runs security operations for both terminals from a command-and control post on Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal (KAAOT), estimates that US$17 billion in oil has left the terminals on tankers over the past four months. “If you wanted to set back Iraq economically then you’d attack the oil platforms here,” he says.

On March 24, 2004 he witnessed such an attempt when he was the Commanding Officer on HMAS Stuart. Just before dusk a dhow, a traditional Arab sail boat, was approached KAAOT. Several dhows had already strayed into the exclusion zone that day and it was assumed that the vessel’s master had made a mistake. A boarding party was dispatched from USS Firebolt to deal with the situation, but as the coalition rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) drew alongside, the dhow detonated. Three US servicemen were killed and four were injured in the blast. As USS Firebolt and HMAS Stuart rushed to render assistance, a coordinated attack was launched at Al Basrah oil terminal (ABOT). Two “cigarette boats”, small merchant vessels that trade food and cigarettes between the fishing dhows, began speeding toward ABOT. They made it within metres of the terminal before being cut down by small arms fire and exploding short of their target.

“They stopped pumping oil for nearly a day,” Captain Spedding recalls. “It meant $US28 million of direct loss in revenue that caused a serious blip in the world economy.” In the weeks following the attack the world oil price rose 9.9 per cent, a clear sign that a successful attack could cripple Iraq’s economy and seriously disrupt global energy markets. It was also a sobering reminder for the Australians on the eve of ANZAC day that the threat of hostile action in the Persian Gulf was real.

“The asymmetric threat is obviously the number one threat we face. It could come from anywhere, and it could be disguised as anything,” says Tim Brown, the Commanding Officer on HMAS Arunta, a Royal Australian Navy frigate deployed for operations in the Persian Gulf. “It’s always there every day, you just don’t know when that dhow is going to be armed with explosives trying to get through. It just looks like every other dhow.” The crew of HMAS Arunta has designated the codeword “Switchblade” for the sudden and unpredictable danger posed by potential enemy contact. “It’s like a knife fight. If you get hit, not only are you bleeding but you’re drowning as well,” explains Lieutenant Commander Gray Connolly.

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Royal Australian Navy Commodore, Allan Du Toit, who was commanding the coalition’s Combined Task Force 158 until January 26, explains that the terminals are surrounded by a “pretty formidable naval presence”. Prospective saboteurs must first contend with an armada of coalition warships that enforce a 3000 metre exclusion zone for each terminal. Around the clock there are a minimum of two coalition frigates, a rotation of US Navy patrol ships, a rotation of US Coast Guard cutters and Iraqi Navy vessels patrolling the exclusion zones. In addition, coalition boarding teams search every vessel entering the zones using either a RHIB or by “fast-roping” onto the vessel from a helicopter.

The Task Force’s principle objective is to protect the flow of oil, the lifeblood of Iraq’s economy. The two working berths on KAAOT manage to pump a few hundred thousand barrels of crude each day, while ABOT pumps around a million and a half barrels per day, which is expected to double when the system reaches capacity thanks, in part, to a $US1.7 billion investment into Iraq’s oil infrastructure. According to the World Bank, trade in crude accounts for more than 98 per cent of the country’s export earnings and two-thirds of GDP.

The stakes are high, and to counter potential threats the coalition goes to extraordinary lengths to monitor anything that moves within a comprehensive radius of the terminals. Each ship maintains situational awareness within their sectors while the command-and-control post on KAAOT runs an operations room with wall-to-wall screens displaying real time feeds from the ships and static sensors on the terminals themselves. In addition to an already burgeoning arsenal of electronic gadgetry, the command post on KAAOT also receives regular feeds from coalition aircraft.

“We get support from maritime patrol aircraft including our Australian P3s and they fly regular missions. It’s an important part of it, it’s one of our surveillance assets and another arrow in our cap,” says Commodore Du Toit. The RAAF P3 Orions are equipped with powerful surveillance systems and their crews fly highly classified missions in support of coalition operations in the Middle East Area of Operations.

“The operation is coordinated by the Commander of Task Force 158, which is a rotational post,” explains Gordon Abernethy, Commander of the Royal Navy’s HMS Campbeltown. “At the moment there’s an Australian in charge and he has a team based on KAAOT to run the Op. It works very smoothly and we integrate very easily. I don’t see any issues when the Australians hand over to the Americans or indeed when they hand over to the Brits. The process is a well-established one that has been going on for many years.”

HMAS Arunta’s Operations Officer, Lieutenant Commander Scott Lowe, agrees that the Australian, American and British naval relationship is a tight one. “We’ve been working with these navies now for many years, not just in peace-time exercises but also in combat. Vietnam, the World Wars and indeed this mission as well. We have been doing this specific function since 9/11.”

Australia’s presence in the Gulf as part of coalition-led efforts became permanent in 2001. Since then the scope of the mission has changed significantly. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the function of the coalition navies was to enforce UN Resolutions pertaining to Iraq under the Oil for Food Programme. Coalition boarding parties would search vessels heading into Iraq for any weapons of mass destruction and make sure that any vessels leaving were not in breach of Security Council Resolutions. Oil smugglers were a persistent issue for the coalition.

“Our function was to intercept vessels coming out of Iraq, apprehend them and capture their illegal cargo,” Lieutenant Commander Lowe says. “The guys coming out were running the gauntlet of what was essentially a naval blockade. They were trying to get themselves through Iraqi territorial waters and into Iranian territorial waters before the coalition could take control of their vessel. They would weld up their ship from the inside with just a slit to steer out of, then make a run for it. We’d go onboard with oxy-acetylene cutters, sledgehammers and repelling gear. We took one down once by rapelling in through the engine intakes into the engineering space.”

Following the 2003 invasion, the mission shifted from impeding the illegal flow of oil for cash to ensuring that the oil flowed freely to support the new Coalition Provisional Authority. The changed role also brought the responsibility of protecting the terminals from attack. “We make sure that we own the battle space, so the fundamental starting point is the surveillance effort. We use all our sensors and systems to build a picture of what’s normal. Once you’ve done that, it allows you to understand what is not normal,” explains Lieutenant Commander Lowe.

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Part of the “normal” picture is co-existing with the Iranians. “We do have a slightly problematic relationship with the Iranian President given that he is simply off with the fairies. He hasn’t made contact with the mother-ship in quite some time,” says an intelligence officer who declined to be named. “The rest of the Iranian behaviour is perfectly normal. The Iranians don’t really concern me. They act in a very routine manner, they patrol their territorial seas the same way we do.”

The issue here is that the territorial seas adjacent to the two oil terminals are hotly contested and both Iran and the coalition on Iraq’s behalf are trying to exert sovereignty over the same stretch of water. “Iran claims greater territorial waters to the west of what is recognised by Iraq, and obviously the coalition,” says Commander Brown. “I’m not talking about huge distances here, just a couple of miles, but enough that it is disputed.”

The dispute means that the coalition fleet and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) play an endless game of cat and mouse in the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf. Encounters with the Iranians are commonplace and HMAS Arunta has developed some novel methods of responding to the IRGCN. The Arunta is fitted with Long-Range Acoustic Devices (L-RADs), which can send highly compressed sound waves to annoy and disorient. L-RADs, also nicknamed the “voice of god”, emit highly focussed beams of sound and those targeted hear a painfully loud noise that can cause permanent hearing loss. “We play AC/DC or Barry Manilow to scare them off. Actually, we tried playing Barry Manilow but we found it was having too much of a reaction on our own crew,” says Commander Brown.

The IRGCN gunboats, which are small and fast, may find wrestling with a frigate challenging, but a coalition boarding party travelling in a RHIB presents an easier target. The IRGCN have previously demonstrated their willingness to snatch coalition boarding parties when they are inside the disputed territorial waters. These situations often occur north of KAAOT where the water is too shallow to allow coalition warships to provide cover for their RHIBs. The boarding parties are left to fend for themselves or depend on their wits when operating remotely inside what the IRGCN considers their patch of turf.

The IRGCN’s first scalps came in July 2004 when six British marines and two sailors were captured. They were paraded on Iranian TV before their release a few days later.

Then in December 2004, the IRGCN unsuccessfully tried to capture sailors from the HMAS Adelaide. The boarding party had just finished searching a cargo dhow, the MV Shams, and were about to leave when the IRGCN arrived on the scene. Out gunned and outnumbered, the Australians re-boarded the dhow, which would be easier to defend and employed “colourful language” to signal their unwillingness to comply with Iranian demands.

The situation was resolved several hours later when the helicopter from the HMAS Adelaide was sent in to winch the Australian sailors to safety.

In another incident in March 2007, the IRGCN intercepted a boarding party from the HMS Cornwall taking seven British marines and eight sailors into custody. A diplomatic fracas ensued between the UK and Iran, which continued for 12 days until the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unexpectedly released the prisoners. He described his gesture as a “gift” to the British people coinciding with the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad and the Easter holiday in the Christian calendar.

Lieutenant Commander Connolly believes that these “bolshy incidents” are posturing by Iran. “I think a part of the drive for what the Iranians do is their desire for respect. They are trying to remind us that they are here and that they are relevant.” There is, however, the possibility that things could take a turn for the worse. “It only takes something little to trigger it off and it could have very different outcome,” warns Lieutenant Commander Lowe. “The danger with a Cornwall or a Shams type incident is that when shots are fired and shots are returned, all of a sudden it’s a shooting match. There is a chance a mistake could happen and it would happen very quickly.”

“Whenever we conduct operations in proximity to Iran we take precautions because we don’t want another situation like the Brits had up here last year with the HMS Cornwall,” says Captain Spedding. “If we are operating up here near the Iranians then we are very prudent in what we do, and we don’t provide them with the opportunity to embarrass us. The fact that they are there – that’s ok. We’ve just got to make sure that we don’t create opportunities to inflame each other.”

It appears likely that the year ahead will provide opportunities for the coalition to inflame the Iraqis as well. The US is insisting that bilateral trade deals concerning Iraq’s hydrocarbon wealth are on the table by July 31. In the Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship Between the Republic of Iraq and the United States of America signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki late last year, the White House called for an agreement on the flow of foreign investments to Iraq, especially American investments. These investments include production sharing agreements for the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas.

Critics of the US deal law point to Article 111 of the 2005 constitution, which enshrines hydrocarbons as the sole property of the people of Iraq. They claim the legislation will give international corporations too much power in the new executive body. The Federal Oil and Gas Council will appoint three representatives from the oil industry to its board along with domestic representatives and will administer all decisions regarding Iraq’s hydrocarbon wealth.

Any suggestion that the United States may be trying to exploit Iraq’s oil is highly inflammatory to Iraqis who want the industry to remain nationalised. Many Iraqis are concerned that the future of the country’s oil interests is being negotiated when the country is at its weakest, and that foreign investors will use the opportunity to lock in long-term contracts with favourable terms. The Muslim Scholars Association, an influential Sunni Arab group, issued a statement saying, “The occupation forces have been rushing to pass such a law in a way that the rights of Iraqis will be sold . The Americans backed by the British occupation forces have started to reveal their greed for Iraq’s oil wealth.”

No matter who pulls the oil from the ground, the coalition naval contingent will remain in the Gulf well into the foreseeable future. Commodore Du Toit says that that the coalition will continue to protect the terminals and provide stewardship of Iraqi territorial waters for some time to come. “I hazard a guess that the maritime domain will be the last domain to revert to Iraqi control because of its fundamental importance,” he says. “The bottom line is, without the export of oil there can be no reconstruction and rehabilitation in Iraq. It’s as simple as that.”

Sean Hobbs is an official Australian war photographer and freelance journalist.