Monday, September 27, 2010

Iraqis Take First Ship In New Patrol Boat Fleet

Iraq inaugurated the first in a fleet of U.S.-built patrol boats on Sept. 26, part of efforts to boost its naval capacity and secure key oil platforms ahead of an American pullout next year.

In a ceremony at Umm Qasr Naval Base, about 310 miles south of Baghdad, sailors demonstrated the capabilities of the boat - named "PB 301" - by showing it chase down smaller vessels.

A six-piece military band played as the boat was unveiled at a ceremony attended by Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, the top American commander responsible for training Iraq's security forces.

"I am proud to be among the first to witness the historical arrival and commissioning of Iraq's first patrol boat," said U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy, the commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, which is primarily tasked with building and supporting the U.S. Navy's fleet.

"This occasion reflects the important ties that bound our governments and our commitment to supporting a strong coalition partnership that is based on mutual respect and cooperation."

Also as part of the ceremony, Iraqi Navy SEALs showed off "stop and search" skills aboard a demonstration vessel, and 177 naval cadets graduated from officer training to become lieutenants.

Crews for the new high-speed patrol boats are currently being trained in the United States, with 15 ultimately set to be delivered to Iraq.

Three are set to arrive in December, with the remaining 11 due for delivery next year.

The Iraqi Navy, re-established two years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, now has 47 vessels, according to a U.S. Army spokeswoman.

It currently handles on-site and perimeter defense for the Khor al-Amiya oil terminal, and on-site defense for the Al-Basra oil terminal, which are six miles apart and 60 miles off the port of Umm Qasr, sandwiched between Iranian and Kuwaiti waters.

About 80 percent of Iraq's oil exports pass through the two terminals, with three more set to be added by the end of next year as the country seeks to ramp up oil exports by as much as five times.

By that time, when U.S. forces will have had to withdraw completely from the country under the terms of a bilateral security pact, Iraq will be solely responsible for all security at oil facilities, including platforms.

U.S. officers are confident their Iraqi comrades are up to the task.

"The Iraqi Navy will be fully capable to defend the oil platforms, the territorial waters and the ports," Barbero said in an interview this month.

The old Iraqi navy was destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War and again in the 2003 invasion.

The United States pulled out combat troops from Iraq at the start of this month, and will complete a full withdrawal at the end of 2011.

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