UMM QASR, Iraq -- The 41-mile journey up the murky Khor abd Allah River to Iraq's main deep-water port here is still a slow, eerie voyage through an obstacle course of navigational hazards. High-powered binoculars at hand, ships' crews must avoid decades-old shipwrecks -- casualties of Iraq's many wars -- that litter the waterway all the way into port.
For weeks, British and U.S. troops have been clearing mines, wrecks and misplaced buoys to rehabilitate the waterway and port to accept the interrupted aid shipments, and later commercial traffic, needed to rebuild postwar Iraq. As early as Friday, the World Food Program's ship MV Rice is to deliver the largest aid shipment to enter Umm Qasr since the war began, escorted by U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats.
It will discharge 14,000 tons of bagged rice, and is expected to be followed by a queue of aid ships waiting in the Persian Gulf, say officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Commercial ships, barred since 1990 by United Nations sanctions, will continue to await the outcome of international legal wrangling over who is empowered to sign contracts.
Mines in the water and the lack of a safely marked shipping lane had meant several large shipments had to be turned back. Now the waterway and the port are secure enough to allow a steady stream of aid shipments of up to 20,000 tons per vessel into Umm Qasr. A recently reopened rail link to Basra will facilitate the transport of the aid throughout Iraq.
In the past few weeks, the British regiment stationed in Umm Qasr has organized the rehiring of some 250 Iraqis to assist in the basic rehabilitation and reconstruction of the port. Eventually, the British expect to rehire an additional 3,250 Iraqi port workers.
Before the war, Umm Qasr handled 60% of the food and humanitarian aid shipped into Iraq under the U.N.'s oil-for-food program -- and was functioning right up until fighting broke out. The war itself did little damage to the deep water port's 16 berths and infrastructure. Britain's 17 Port and Maritime Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps, now temporarily in charge, prevented looters from stealing much of the valuable loading equipment. The only real damage to the two-mile-long port on Iraq's tiny coastline is from years of neglect, decades of corruption and the sanctions that made it difficult to replace spare parts as dock-side equipment broke down.
"The port is basically in good working order, but it's looking a bit tired and run-down," says Lt. Col. Paul Ash, commanding officer of the regiment. "Once there's some investment we'll see improvements that will be disproportionately large compared to the money spent."
How much funding the U.S. will allot to the port hasn't been decided yet. Stevedoring Services of America Inc., a Seattle transportation-service outfit that won a $4.8 million contract from Washington, is waiting for the government's response to its report on the port. Representatives from USAID, which will be disbursing the money, estimate the cost at tens of millions of dollars; Col. Ash estimates the bill at up to $100 million. Those connected with the plans say the improvements could turn Umm Qasr into a world-class, profit-making port in six months to a year. SSA's Dan Flynn says it could become self-sufficient "very, very quickly."
The British minehunting vessel HMS Grimsby has completed its work using high-tech equipment to carry out daily sweeps of the Khor abd Allah, or KAA, channel for mines that could be triggered by collision, the sound of a ship passing through water, or the magnetic signature of a ship's hull.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Walnut, based in Honolulu, is about a week away from completing its task of laying 35 new buoys in the KAA river to make it safe for commercial ships to enter without military escort. "The condition of the buoys in the KAA was so bad that they actually presented a hazard to navigation," said Lt. Commander Chris Smith, captain of the Walnut. On a recent trip aboard the cutter, the commander pointed out one buoy missing its light and another almost 500 yards out of place and blocking the shipping channel.
A fleet of other boats, mainly coalition navy vessels, has been drafted to complement the Walnut's work, along with a few civilian dredging and towing ships. HMS Roebuck, a British navy oceanographic survey ship, has completed a survey of the coastline, water depth and potential hazards and is in the process of updating decades-old nautical charts of the waterway.
The USS Grapple, a rescue and salvage ship, is still working to pick up the wrecks of the sunken tankers and other detritus cluttering the KAA. And U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats cruise up and down the KAA to ensure the security of the channel, which is currently under Australian control.