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Iraqis say ready to take control of oil terminals

IRAQI OIL TERMINALS, Northern Gulf (Reuters) - Iraqi soldiers aboard the patrol boat scan the waters around them before they give permission to U.S. sailors to approach the Gulf oil terminal.

An Iraqi marine stands guard at Al Basra oil terminal off the Iraqi coast August 3, 2007. Iraqi soldiers aboard the patrol boat scan the waters around them before they give permission to U.S. sailors to approach the Gulf oil terminal. REUTERS/Hamad I. Mohammed

For the first time since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein more than four years ago, Iraqi soldiers are taking charge of protecting the country’s greatest assets against insurgents under a plan to hand over control to Iraqis.

“The Iraqis are doing the job,” said Australian Captain Philip Spedding, who manages coalition Northern Gulf operations. “They’re the ones manning the gun positions and the radar, talking on the radio. It’s close to transition point on the terminals.”

Iraq’s southern oil fields and export facilities have largely escaped the kind of insurgent attacks that had regularly hit pipelines and oil installations in other parts of Iraq.

But Iraqis guarding the two terminals point to neighboring states and saboteurs as potential threats. An armed Iranian lookout post is visible from one of the terminals.

Rival Shi’ite militias are vying for control of oil exports in southern Iraq, which contains the otherwise landlocked country’s only access to the sea, as British troop gradually hand over control to Iraqis.

Sailors from U.S.-allied countries have been training Iraqis since soon after the 2003 invasion, in an effort to rebuild a navy devastated by sanctions and wars.

They said training was beginning to pay off.

Iraqi troops guarding the two terminals, on which the country’s tattered economy relies, say they are ready to take full responsibility for their protection. U.S. and allied troops say they have largely cut their role to that of supervisors.

“We’re 100 percent ready. Iraq was always capable, but after the oppression we saw under Saddam Hussein, we were in a bad state,” said Hani, an Iraqi guarding a terminal. Iraqi troops are not allowed to give their full names for security reasons.

On Monday, Kerbala became the eighth of Iraq’s 18 provinces to be formally handed over to Iraqi security forces.

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An OPEC member, Iraq has the world’s third largest oil reserves, and relies on its main terminal in the south at Basra for exports of about 1.5 million barrels per day.

As oil prices creep towards $100 a barrel, the terminals’ role in rebuilding Iraq’s shattered economy increases.

Iraq’s oil infrastructure has suffered frequent attacks by militants aiming to destabilize the country, by denying the government petrodollars to rebuild. At least three attacks on Iraqi oil pipelines were reported since September 19.

Three km (1.86 mile) exclusion zones ring each terminal after suicide bombers in speedboats attacked one platform in 2004. Iraq’s Khor al-Amaya oil terminal is riddled with bullet and missile holes from Iraq’s 1980-88 war with Iran.


Since April, ammunition allowances for training have been raised to some 3,500 rounds per person per week, from six rounds before, British troops monitoring Iraqi marine security said.

“They’re out on their own. They’re not being babysat... When we first arrived it was difficult to get them to wear their uniform, let alone be marines. Now they’re functioning as a unit,” Lieutenant Commander Iain Doran said.

A U.S. sailor said his Iraqi counterparts had learned to build a rapport with the crews of the vessels they inspect, compared to previous gun-toting and aggressive searches.

Many of the Iraqis working to guard the oil terminals were in Saddam’s army, and they said better wages and services under coalition control had led to more professionalism and enthusiasm.

Growing attacks by militants in Iraq had also helped boost a sense of cohesion and purpose, others said.

Although Iraqis have been trained to take over oil terminal security, Australian and some Iraqi military sources said the main obstacle to an imminent handover was a lack of equipment.

Ten to 15 ships are needed to enforce the exclusion zones around both terminals alone, and Iraq only has five relatively small craft to police all its territorial waters, they said.

Logistical support, such as the provision of supplies and spare parts, was also lacking, they added.

“They might be competent from a human dimension, but is the equipment side there to support them consistently?.... The current patrol boats are small and there’s not many of them,” Spedding said, declining to give a timeline for readiness.

But most Iraqis protecting the terminals said they were ready and eager to take control regardless.

“We’re ready to hold both terminals without any outside help... We have no doubt in our ability,” Abu Yusef said.