By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 23, 2008 - Iraq's fledgling navy is gaining prominence within its country's security forces due to its role in protecting the nation's oil infrastructure, a coalition advisor said July 22. British Royal navy Capt. Paul Abraham, director of the Maritime Strategic Transition Team and senior advisor to the Iraqi navy, explained during a conference call with military bloggers that in addition to quickly expanding their naval force, Iraqi marines and sailors also are fast moving into a lead role in defending Iraq's major ports and oil terminals from insurgent attack.
"The Iraqi navy's aim is to be able to guard their oil infrastructure, their means of making money," Abraham said. "The 15 patrol boats, four patrol ships, and the two offshore support vessels, which are the major elements of the navy, are all about protecting the oil platforms and making sure they're secure from a non-state aggressor."
Those 21 vessels, all more than 34 meters in length, will be delivered in 2009 and 2010, along with 26 smaller craft. The new vessels will add to the navy's existing fleet of five Chinese "Predator" patrol boats and 10 riverine craft.
The Iraqi navy and its associated marine force moved into a major security role following Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision in the spring to confront militias operating in Basra, southern Iraq's largest city. Since then, nearly two battalions of marines were created and trained and ordered to seize the southern Iraqi ports of Umm Qasr and Azerbia, Abraham said.
"Those are the two key ports in Iraq. And Umm Qasr has 90 percent of the imports and exports of the entire country, and was under militia control," Abraham said. "They very successfully conducted that action, and now the navy holds those ports."
Abraham said the navy now conducts 42 patrols per week -- a 300 percent increase in activity over the past year -- and contributes to point and perimeter defense of offshore oil platforms, including search-and-seizure operations.
Abraham gave a target of late 2010 or early 2011 for the Iraqis to conduct their counterinsurgency mission independently of coalition assistance. Building the strength and capabilities to face a state aggressor could take until 2018 or later, he said. Until that time, coalition naval forces will maintain an overwatch role, Abraham said.
Bringing the Iraqi navy to its present state was a challenge, Abraham admitted. Contracting setbacks and previously insufficient funding and attention from Iraqi authorities kept it from growing at pace, he said.
"Sometimes it's difficult to persuade the Iraqi Ministry of Defense how important it is to build up their navy with all the other challenges that they've got," Abraham said. "They are very much land focused, because that's where most of the fight has been."
The new navy was started in November 2004 with a decision to transition from a coast guard force, Abraham explained.
"Real work didn't start until 2005, so we're three years into this process of rebuilding from ground zero the Iraqi navy," Abraham added. "But we are [building] successfully, and they are spending their money on developing a navy," he said.
A separate coast guard force exists to patrol Iraq's internal waters and the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran, Abraham noted.
(Tim Kilbride works in the New Media Directorate of the Defense Media Activity.)