With increased traffic around the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr and substantial oil exports now being undertaken from platforms in the Gulf, the role of the Iraqi maritime security forces is becoming ever more important. Helping train them is a coalition team led by the Royal Navy.
Based within the Iraqi Naval Base at Umm Qasr, in the Al Basrah province of southern Iraq, the Coalition Naval Advisory Training Team (CNATT-UQ) consists of some 90 personnel from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, British Army, Royal Air Force, US Navy, US Coast Guard and US Marine Corps.
The Royal Navy-led operation exists to train, mentor and advise the re-established Iraqi maritime forces and the coalition staff work alongside their Iraqi counterparts on a daily basis to help the Iraqi Navy and Iraqi Marines 'force generate' and transition to a level where they can provide security for Iraq's territorial waters and ports.
This area is of absolute significance to Iraq's economy as the two major offshore oil terminals (often referred to as OPLATs), Khawr Al Amaya and Al Basrah, and the port of Umm Qasr, account for approximately 90 per cent of Iraq's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The training programme for the Iraqi maritime forces is now kicking up another notch and a series of high profile visits by the UK and US has recently demonstrated the commitment and importance of this area of work, which will continue after the main bulk of UK forces withdraw from southern Iraq.
Starting off the recent visits was the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, who arrived at the Iraqi Naval Base on board one of the Iraqi Navy's recently-acquired Defender-class Fast Small Boats.
Receiving a briefing on the training being conducted Admiral Band witnessed practical training, including US Coast Guard-led boarding training conducted in the CNATT-UQ built 'Ship in a Box', which consists of stacked containers designed to replicate a merchant vessel's superstructure and internal spaces.
Shortly after Admiral Band's visit, Rear Admiral Thomas A Cropper, Deputy Commander of US Naval Forces Central Command, arrived at Umm Qasr on the US Coast Guard cutter Aquidneck. The ship's presence furthered the aim of bringing more coalition ships alongside in the interests of making such visits normal practice, and allowed useful training with the Iraqi Navy to take place.
The Aquidneck is similar in size to the Iraqi Navy's new patrol ships and a number of tours provided useful first-hand experience for the Iraqi Navy and Marine personnel.
Following this visit, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, accompanied by the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, made an unannounced visit to see first-hand the Iraqi Navy's progress and to thank CNATT-UQ personnel for their achievements. Mr Brown reinforced the importance of the team and the work they were doing in the continuing regeneration of Iraq.
The CNATT-UQ commander, Captain Richard Ingram RN, gave Mr Brown a strategic brief on the Iraqi Navy's vital roles within the overarching Iraqi security and development strategy. Captain Ingram commented:
"With the pending delivery of 20 more Defender-class Fast Small Boats, as well as the procurement of four patrol ships, and an expected 15 patrol boats and two Offshore Support Vessels, the resulting unprecedented level of growth in capability will allow the transition of responsibility for maritime security to shift from Coalition forces to the Iraqi Navy.
"The increased maritime traffic within the commercial port and substantial oil exports from the two OPLATs in the Gulf generate a large proportion of Iraq's GDP and this, in turn, clearly emphasises the importance of a proficient and enduring Iraqi maritime force in a stable Iraq."
A more recent visit was undertaken by the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General James T Conway, who received a brief on the progress of the Iraqi Marines and witnessed several training evolutions.
The sheer number of completed and scheduled high-profile visits to CNATT-UQ will ensure the spotlight remains firmly on the team's mission and commitment. Captain Ingram explained:
"Whilst the drawdown of UK forces has been announced, the CNATT-UQ will remain an enduring British commitment in Iraq, helping to promote security, economic development and the rule of law. If we were to leave this summer along with all other UK forces, then I assess that, although limited maritime operations would continue, there would be a considerable delay to Iraqi Navy forces achieving full and effective operations across the full spectrum of required capability."
The CNATT-UQ's detailed transition plan, combined with a fully-inclusive approach to training delivery, is set to realise capability over time and is very much aligned with the Iraqi Navy's concept of operations.
Captain Ingram added:
"We have a very close relationship with our Iraqi counterparts and have strived to cultivate the environment of co-operation and friendship of which our Prime Minister spoke during his recent press conference.
"This is something we have been doing for some time as we seek to develop personal, professional relationships and engage with the local community wherever and whenever possible.
"The development of a navy from virtually nothing to one capable of defending the essential strategic maritime infrastructure of its country is incredibly rewarding and one my whole team is proud to be involved with. The impact of the CNATT UQ's efforts will result in a capable, efficient and proud Iraqi Navy, and will be felt for many years."