By Chip CumminsWall Street Journal
November 12, 2007
The U.S. Navy is building a military installation atop this [the Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal] petroleum-export platform as the U.S. establishes a more lasting military mission in the oil-rich north Persian Gulf.
The U.S. Navy is quietly building a new military installation atop Khawr Al Amaya, one of two Iraqi export terminals. While presidential candidates debate whether to start bringing ground troops home from Iraq, the new construction suggests that one footprint of U.S. military power in Iraq isn't shrinking anytime soon: American officials are girding for an open-ended commitment to protect the country's oil industry.
That is a sea change for the U.S., which has patrolled these waters for decades. In the past, American warships and their allies flexed the West's military might in the Persian Gulf to demonstrate a broad commitment to protect the region, which produces almost a third of the world's oil. President Jimmy Carter codified the doctrine in 1980 in response to a perceived Soviet threat. Now, amid rising prices -- oil futures finished Friday at $96.32 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, up 86 cents -- and new vulnerabilities in the world's stretched oil-supply chain -- from militants in Nigeria to occasional Iranian threats to disrupt Persian Gulf shipping -- the Navy finds itself with an additional, much more specific role: playing security guard to Iraq's offshore oil infrastructure.
Iraq's two export terminals are an increasingly vulnerable link in that supply chain. If they are both working, they can load almost two million barrels a day, or about 2.4% of the world's daily oil needs. If the four tanker berths at Al Basra Oil Terminal, the better-working of the two, are occupied with loaded ships, the cargo would represent almost 10% of global demand.
"As a contributor to an increasingly inelastic supply, that is a significant percentage," says Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf. "That isn't just an Iraq issue, that's a global economic-stability issue."
The new installation will house U.S., British and Australian officers and sailors. The Pentagon has said it has no intention of building permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, and Navy officials say they intend to turn over the facility to Iraqi forces as soon as they can run it on their own. But Iraqi forces are a long way from being able to take over the mission, Navy officials say. Iraqi patrol boats are on the water assisting in sector patrols around the terminals. But they are rusting hulks. Iraqi soldiers stationed on the terminals have just recently started training with live ammunition. "They are going to need help for years to come," Adm. Cosgriff says. So for the time being, the new base will serve as a U.S.-controlled command post straddling a major component of Iraq's creaking oil industry. From a collection of modified shipping containers, coalition officers will monitor ship traffic and coordinate the movement of coalition warships circling "Kaaot" and "Abot," as the military has nicknamed the two terminals.
Right now, the two terminals don't look like much. They are riddled with holes from bullets and shells during fighting in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. A causeway connecting two sections of Kaaot collapsed in the spring, and a fire ravaged another section of the terminal last year. Despite the disrepair, they are arguably the most heavily guarded oil installations in the world. These days, three U.S. Coast Guard and Navy patrol ships scoot around a mile or so off the terminals. An Iraqi boat is typically on station as well. They spend most of their day shooing away fishing boats and merchant traffic. A handful of much larger coalition warships cruise nearby. A contingent of U.S. sailors lives on each of the two terminals to help provide close-in protection and to train Iraqi troops. A chain-link fence drapes over parts of the terminal to deter small craft or swimmers from getting to the terminal. U.S. and Iraqi forces narrowly thwarted an attack by explosives-laden speedboats in 2004.
Coalition staff, including an Australian commodore who currently has tactical control of the operation, have been previously stationed on the terminal, living aboard a rusty barge moored to Kaaot. Iraqi Marines man machine guns on each of the two terminals, and dozens of Iraqi employees, working shifts for Iraq's South Oil Co., operate the terminals for the Iraqi government. Ashore, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad recently formed a special task force of American officials to coordinate U.S. policy regarding Iraqi energy-related issues, including security of oil infrastructure. U.S. forces don't guard any onshore installations, but Washington has committed some $277 million for energy-infrastructure protection.
Iraq's once-powerful oil industry is still a point of nationalistic pride among most Iraqis. Oil officials in Baghdad have mixed feelings about the U.S. presence atop one of their country's most important pieces of energy infrastructure. Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraq's oil minister, acknowledges the foreign navies' crucial role protecting the platforms. But he also complains about the delays that U.S.-led tanker inspections and security measures sometimes mean. "We have asked them not to influence the movement of vessels assigned to carry our crude oil to the buyers," he says. The new outpost also offers a convenient perch from which to monitor Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps. Amid heightened rhetoric between Tehran and Washington over the past few years, some Iranian officials have threatened a disruption to shipping in the Persian Gulf.
The naval component of the Revolutionary Guards Corps operates from a partially submerged barge and crane visible on clear days from Kaaot. Iranian forces in the spring captured a contingent of British sailors who were participating in the oil-protection mission here and paraded them in front of cameras before letting them go. Despite the incident, coalition officials say contact with their Iranian counterparts operating in the Gulf has been limited and mostly professional. "We live with each other," says Lt. Brian Betz, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Maui. "They stay on their side of the line, and we stay on our side." Washington has also boosted its efforts to encourage more energy-security cooperation among allies in the Gulf. Adm. Cosgriff says U.S. firepower won't solve all the region's energy-security fears. "You can go broke doing point defense for all the platforms out here," he says.
Hassan Hafidh in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this article.
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