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Iraq navy tests sea legs, but trainers predict shaky times

ABOARD AN IRAQI PATROL BOAT (AP) - The unidentified speedboat fails to respond to warnings as it races toward Iraq's vital oil terminal in the Persian Gulf. A young Iraqi marine radios to the vessel, warning it to turn away: "I will be required to use deadly force."

This confrontation is just a drill - an effort by American, British and Australian officers to prepare Iraq's tiny navy to defend its waters and the country's major oil exporting facilities.

But the day when Iraq alone can defend its shores - and protect its critical offshore oil installations - seems remote.

Iraq's navy now has five Chinese-made patrol boats and 26 fast-attack aluminum vessels - fewer than half of which are operational. Its personnel number about 1,350, including 350 marines.

"They think they are an elite unit, but they are not," said Capt. Jock Alexander of the British Royal Marines, who is in charge of training Iraqi marines to guard the 1.8-mile exclusion zone around each of the country's two oil platforms.

The struggle to build a credible Iraqi navy is mirrored - on larger scales - by the mounting delays and costs to form a new Iraqi army and air force after Washington disbanded Saddam Hussein's military.

The shortcomings within the security forces were exposed during recent battles against Shiite militias in southern Iraq, where some units were wracked by dissent and outfoxed by guerrilla fighters. On Sunday, the Iraqi government fired more than 1,300 soldiers and policemen who deserted during the clashes in Basra.

In the Gulf, Iraqi marines have only two weeks basic infantry training. They are not yet prepared for full combat missions and will be incapable of an amphibious assault any time soon, instructors say.

"The challenge is to get them to be comfortable in what they do," Captain Alex Pounds of Royal Marines said.

But the Iraq recruits are still not quite sure what that role is. The Iraqi command in Baghdad had not given the navy a clear statement of its mission in the northern Gulf. Watching over the country's oil lifeline is simply a natural inclination.

"The oil terminals are the main artery for our economy, so it's crucial to be able to defend them," said Navy Lt. Sinan, the commander of the Iraqi 103 Predator patrol boat. He asked that only his first name be used because of security reasons.

But the men on the Predator do not agree with their Western trainers about who represents the greatest threats. Most Iraqi recruits do not perceive Iran as a foe.

"Iran is our friend," said Sinan, who is from the southern city of Basra. "The enemy is terrorism. It has many faces and many names."

The Iraqi marines' commander, Lt. Dhyaa, said those who want to harm Iraq come from all neighboring states, not just Iran.

"The problem are terrorists, hiding among ordinary people," said Dhyaa.

Like the Predator's commander, he did not want to be identified with his full name for fear of being associated with the coalition forces.

Dhyaa said he feared no one when conducting security sweeps on oil tankers and dhows, the traditional sailing vessels in the Gulf. Unlike most men under his command, Dhyaa boards vessels carrying local and foreign flags without covering his face.

"I am the new law, not a criminal," Dhyaa said.

His Western trainer said Iraqi recruits worry most for the safety of their families. "Their major fear is retribution for helping coalition forces," said Petty Officer Aivaro Vasquez of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Four years after coalition troops started to assemble Iraq's navy, the country remains entirely dependent on U.S. warships for defense of its territorial waters.

The U.S. Navy has one aircraft carrier operating in the region. American and British cruisers and destroyers are also deployed. So is an Australian frigate.

Along with these warships, the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Patrol vessels are on guard against pirates, explosive devices at sea and any other threats coming too close to the ships or the two oil terminals.

Iraq has a 35-mile coastline, and shares its passages to the sea — the Shatt al Arab and the Khor Abdulla — with two neighbors it previously fought: Iran and Kuwait.

Most of Iraq's Navy's combat ships were destroyed by the United States in the 1991 Gulf War and the surviving vessels rusted during the 12 years of sanctions that followed. There was no marine corps in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"Iraq is an emerging nation," Alexander of Royal Marines said. "It will take some time for the Navy to gain confidence and for the marines to develop core values."

Alexander said Iraq's navy is expected to grow to 2,500 sailors and marines in the next two years. By the end of 2010, its fleet should include four new Italian-made patrol ships, 15 Malaysian-made patrol boats and two offshore support vessels.

Iraq navy tests sea legs, but trainers predict shaky times - Source

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