Iraqis defy death threats to rebuild their navy

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The Independent Online

The eclectic bunch of Iraqis on board the Predator patrol boat included a carpenter, a doctor's assistant, a fisherman and a music shop owner. Most were Shias from Basra but there were also Sunnis from Baghdad and even a smattering of Kurds and Christians.

Some had grown up close to the sea and had it in their blood. Others were looking a sickly green due to the swell of the waves. But they all had one thing in common: Each one was clad in the new garb of Iraqi marines. They had all swapped their previous trades for a life protecting Iraq's waterways and crucially the two giant oil terminals six miles out to sea which support the bulk of the country's fragile economy.

About 2.4 million barrels worth more than $230m at today's peak prices are pumped through the Al Basra and Khawr Al Amaya oil terminals daily, making them the source of 90 per cent of Iraq's gross domestic product and a prime terrorist target.

Today British, American and Australian warships encircle the platforms, but eventually it should fall to the country's own marines to protect them.

The Iraqi navy was devastated by the very same UK and US forces who are now trying to build it back up to a credible operation. The small number of patrol and fast aluminium boats they currently use were originally ordered by Saddam Hussein and confiscated en route to Iraq in 2002 because of sanctions. Contracts have been signed with Italian and Malaysian companies to provide new ships but the first is not due to arrive for at least a year.

The talk of withdrawal in Basra is not echoed here. "We are building from a much lower starting position," said the UK's maritime component commander, Commodore Keith Winstanley, adding that he could not see a handover happening for at least another three years. "Until their boats arrive they can't protect the oil platforms. Somebody has got to be there. Whether we like it or not, the two transition timelines cannot be completely the same."

While some of the Iraqi marines talked proudly of protecting their country's economy, most conceded that they were far more driven by the need to keep food on the table. But it is a path fraught with danger.

The salary of a marine, about $400 (195), was five times what he was earning as a doctor's assistant, explained Abunoor, 31, a warrant officer from Umm Qasr, who supports seven unemployed brothers and their families as well as his own. "We come here to provide for our families but I worry my brother will be kidnapped, my son will be kidnapped because of my job. I am very tired of worrying about my family. My mother died worrying."

Murtada, a 20-year-old private and Sunni from Baghdad, was so afraid of being murdered walking home from a job at the Iraqi Ministry of Defence that he set off for the other side of the country.

Distance has made him only fractionally safer. Each week, as the new marines leave their Umm Qasr base to return home they divest themselves of their uniforms, their identity cards and anything else that might give away their profession.

Another marine, aged 24, said: "I went to my house and found a letter. It said you have five days to leave your job or you will be killed. They blew up my shop. I changed my house and now I only go there at night. I never feel safe now. I like the training but my family are terrified. It is like suicide. I can't live like this."

Haider, a 25-year-old from a tribe which had 15 members, including his father and four uncles, executed when he was just a toddler, said everyone feared for their families despite a drop in violence in Basra since British troops withdrew from the centre. "I live with the worry every day. Everyone has a painful story. Everyone is afraid but he wishes to protect the economy, the country."

Lieutenant Commander Toby Norman who has trained many of the new marines, said the training had not been without its surreal moments. Many Iraqis were teaching themselves English by watching Coronation Street on the ship's television system and were now addicted to the soap.

But the marines' junior role obviously irked some of the men. Mohammed Baqer, who served for 20 years in Saddam's navy, began to laugh. Asked what was so funny, he replied with a wry smile: "This is an Iraqi patrol boat. That is an Iraqi oil terminal. And we are waiting for permission to go there."