By Army Master Sgt. David Bennett
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 4, 2009 - When the city of Basra was particular unstable between 2006 and 2008, the port of Umm Qasr was left to tread water as a contributor to Iraq's economic development. Now, however, through the collaboration of the Joint Interagency Task Force Iraq and Iraqi partners, the port is positioned to navigate over its next developmental hurdle.
Today, port operations are more secure than they were just two years ago when Shiite extremists controlled much of the area. Quelled by Iraqi forces, the city of Basra is now peaceful. The task force, which includes the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, is charged with aiding in Iraq's reconstruction. Part of that collaboration includes devising a plan to make Umm Qasr more attractive to potential international trade partners.
Steadiness in a city that could be Iraq's primary economic generator is a major priority of Multinational Force Iraq.
U.S. Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, arrived Nov. 21 to speak with task force officials about progress at Umm Qasr and its efforts to meet mandates under the International Ship and Port Facility Code – a certification that more countries are obtaining to gain a larger slice of the global maritime marketplace.
A tool of the International Maritime Organization, the code is a comprehensive set of measures to enhance the security of ships and port facilities, developed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
In the last few months, ships from such countries as North Korea, Jordan, Panama and Sierra Leone have arrived at Umm Qasr carrying wheat, cars and building materials. Built in 1958, Umm Qasr is designed to handle agricultural and manufactured goods and is Iraq's only deep-water commercial port.
Odierno understands that implementing the certification for Umm Qasr is important to drawing more international trade prospects because the code is becoming the accepted standard in international shipping operations. The challenge is getting Iraqi stakeholders to embrace the concept as well.
"If they become more efficient, they have an incredible opportunity," Odierno said of the port authority and its role in Iraq's economic future.
Maj. Mark Reiswig, a civilian military transportation officer for the 34th Infantry Division, helps address port and security issues for task force's Port Advisory Coordination Element. While Umm Qasr has made strides to bring the port nearer compliance, the bigger test is convincing Iraqi stakeholders that privatizing one of the state's most significant state-owned assets will be key.
"The concept that you can come over as a company and make money is pretty foreign to them," said Reiswig, of Rockville, Md. "Iraq will look like Kuwait and Bahrain, once they start to make [progress]."
The certification process is about eight months from being completed. Because an international port is only as safe as the incoming vessel's last port of call and the cargo's last inspection, it is essential that Iraq ensure measures are sufficient to fend-off threats and protection breaches, said Maitham Najim, Umm Qasr's head of port security.
The task for "gave me a lot of direction, also a check list that helps," Najim said.
The check list is long, but getting shorter.
Task force and port officials are working to improve various port security features, including better ways of controlling port access, screening and inspecting cargo, installing additional security equipment, upgrading customs processes and introducing automation.
Capital for the upgrades is being provided by a $370 million loan from Japan. At the port site, trucks move containers to one yard daily where they are off -loaded and moved to another yard to be used again. Before, containers were stacked in one location and left.
It's getting better as far as efficiency, said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Joseph LoSciuto, PACE officer in charge, but there's room for improvement across the whole port operation.
"Right now, it takes 10 days to process cargo once it comes in," he said. "With the changes we want to implement, we can cut that down to five days."
Under an agreement between the Syrian and Iraqi transport ministries, the first rail trip from the western Syrian seaport of Tartous to Umm Qasr took place earlier this year. According to Reiswig, having a working railway that connects to Basra's port is an integral part of the transportation equation.
Advisors are pursuing a reduction of the number of port employees from 4,800 to 900, Luscioto said. That's because the state-owned port, a major employer, has a long-standing tradition of patronage.
Convincing their Iraqi counterparts that trimming employee rolls is beneficial to the port's overall efficiency will be a difficult, but essential for the port's future.
There are no simple solutions, LoSciuto acknowledged, in convincing some Iraqi officials that the move to privatization is a move toward a stronger future in Iraq.
"This is important, but we can't do it unless they want to do it," Odierno said.
(Master Sgt. David Bennett serves with the 367th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)