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Critical Nodes: Too Close for Comfort

June 25, 2005

Critical Nodes

Normandy screening ABOT

USS Normandy, North Arabian Gulf

Jeffrey Mellinger is the Command Sergeant Major responsible for the Multi-National Force in Iraq, including all Coalition officers, enlisted persons and civilians. Every canal and precipice in the battle space, from posh offices to combat-mired swamps, falls under his watch. Across deserts and over mountains, he checks the battle readiness and welfare of the troops. He does not rely on reports, but instead ventures for answers deep into the field with his small nondescript patrol.

CSM Mellinger was near Syria in Tal Afar, checking Coalition and Iraqi troops that have been battling with insurgents. On his return, Mellinger flew by helicopter from Tal Afar to Mosul to start the drive back to Baghdad. It was on this leg of the journey that I would finally be allowed to join his patrol.

We met in Mosul as the sun was rising over the Tigris, but there was no time to admire the peaceful view; once I joined up, we rolled out the gates and drove about half a day from Mosul to Camp Victory in Baghdad.

Baghdad to Kuwait

For a country often called the “cradle of civilization,” Iraq has been mostly rocking with war during our lifetimes. The roads of Baghdad are a pictograph in panorama of the immediate past. Scattered shards of fresh combat, burned-out and bullet-riddled cars strewn in random abandonment, guardrails ripped, torn and twisted, bomb craters in the roads, mortar scars on the buildings, and ominous smoke on the horizon. In this post-apocalyptic scene, one might expect to see few people venturing out, but the only thing ubiquitous in Baghdad these days are the traffic jams. Moving at Mellinger’s usual pace, we quickly emerge from the heated streets out onto the highway. As miles fade away, we enter southern Iraq, and the war zone behind us dissolves into a wavering vista in the rearview mirror.

The drive is mostly just hot, flat, windswept sand and dust, and the first one-humped camels I’ve seen since leaving India. Deep in the desert someone had spray-painted onto a concrete barrier “Watch-Out for Dumbass Camels.” The biggest threat to drivers now isn’t roadside bombs; but other drivers, and dromedaries that haven’t developed traffic sense. Like the rutting moose of Maine, who will stop even a logging vehicle, these languid ships of the desert wander blithely across paved roads. Accustomed to strange visions that evaporate into mirages before their enormous soft eyes, they barely cast a lash-fringed glance as they galumph along the highway.

Sometime later we emerge in Kuwait, a peaceful country that had been swallowed in one gulp by its “civilized” neighbor. Eventually, the retreating invaders acting on the orders of Saddam Hussein set a forest of oil wells ablaze, raising environmental alarms when the vast Kuwaiti oil fields pumped enough acrid smoke into the atmosphere to create eclipse-like conditions throughout the region. If he couldn’t have Kuwait, he was hell-bent on making it so toxic no one else would want it, while stamping his boots in a tantrum of epic proportions.

The Kuwaitis, like the Kurds, are predominantly peaceful Muslims. Kuwait is clean and, apart from crazy drivers, affords a breathing space that gives us pause for restful thoughts in the company of kind people. Unfortunately, that’s about the only comfort at hand. When we arrived at the Army base, the thermometers in the shade read 125 Fahrenheit, though it did not feel a bit over 115. CSM Mellinger continued meeting soldiers, Marines, sailors and support staff, until we boarded a helicopter, flying out to the USS Normandy stationed in the North Arabian Gulf.

Al Basra Oil Terminal: ABOT

[Note: I will never reveal critical information not easily or readily attainable. Before publishing the photos that accompany this post, I found similar photos that could be easily downloaded from the US Navy.]

The helicopter sits across from us on the scorching tarmac. It’s still morning but the air is so hot and thin that even though we have empty seats on the helicopter, the pilot hovers briefly to check lift capacity, before lifting higher and roaring above the desert until we cross over into the North Arabian Gulf.

About twenty minutes into the flight, the main event appears out the left window: the Al Basra Oil Terminal, known simply as ABOT. Just nearby we see another called KAAOT: Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal.

The insurgents here are not trying to topple an established and oppressive government. The converse, actually–they are trying to prevent a new democratic government from gaining a foothold in the sand. The zealots employ proven methods of past insurgencies by engaging in operations that destroy the economic infrastructure and destabilize and discredit the government, thereby undermining its ability to govern. While the insurgents have seriously hindered the process of reconstituting Iraq, the new government is getting stronger by the day, making insurgency a game of diminishing prospects. The insurgency does not appear to be weakening, but the government is definitely getting stronger.

Iraq depends on oil for cash. Predictably, pipelines are prime targets for terrorist bombs. Giant plumes of blackness trailing the oleaginous stench of petroleum rise like the sun over the desert. The only real source of income flows through pipes to ABOT and KAAOT.

Seen from our helicopter, the two oil terminals on the glistening sea do not look like much, but they are said to represent 87% of Iraq’s current income. The new Iraq may be on its knees, steadying itself and preparing to stand, but it likely would fall on its face in the sand if these two oil terminals were destroyed. ABOT and KAAOT are the beating heart of a free Iraq, and the insurgents know this. They know ABOT alone represents more than 80% of Iraq’s economy, making it a critical node. Its destruction would be devastating.

ABOT and KAAOT are not oil wells, but oil terminals. The actual wells are on land, and the oil flows through 4-foot diameter piping approximately 52 miles to the terminals. Ships from all over the world come alongside, fill their bellies and sail away, while money flows back to Iraq. If the pipes are ruptured, a minimum of the 52 miles of oil sitting in the 4-foot diameter piping will flow into the North Arabian Gulf, causing serious ecological damage and leaving Iraq less than penniless. There are shut-off valves which theorectically would limit the extent of the disaster. There is also some question about whether these aging valves actually work. Assuming they do limit the flow of oil to the sea, this might reduce the number of dead sea birds who tar and feather the coast, but it won’t stop the government from bleeding its bank into the sea.

With so much at stake, the insurgents set their sights on the destruction of ABOT and KAAOT, while the Iraqi government and the Coalition assemble there to defend it. Only time will tell which side will hold. Coalition forces are not leaving the outcome to chance. They have set up defenses in depth. Warships from the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia surround the terminals. Although the terminals are sovereign Iraqi property, and the plan is to turn over the entire defense to Iraq as soon as possible, the show below is under the command of a senior Australian naval officer and his staff.

The helicopter swoops into a hard left turn around the USS Normandy, someone slides open the door and I take some photos. On the ship below are missiles, machine guns, cannons and other weapons. When the helicopter eases down on deck, the rotors chopping overhead, we climb onboard the Normandy, greeted by senior officers and enlisted persons. CSM Mellinger is shown to his quarters and his soldiers are taken to theirs, and I am given a bunk.

Soon we are climbing down the ship’s ladder onto a small boat, and puttering over to ABOT, where a short climb off the boat and up a ladder then up some stairs gets us to the oil terminal proper.

“Your mission is absolutely critical”

CSM Mellinger and a naval senior enlisted counterpart–Command Master Chief Kelly Schneider from the 5th Fleet–make their rounds and talk with the people guarding the pumping heart of the new Iraq. While Mellinger and Schneider spell out the criticality of the terminals, I wonder if the weight of the mission has fully sunk into the younger ones. The CIA, Delta Force and countless others may all be trying to catch Zarqawi, and when they do it will be a media event that might even surpass the sizzle of yanking Saddam out of his spider hole. But it’s doubtful that catching Zarqawi will have any real effect on the direction of this war. Despite the media’s pronouncements about his critical leadership role, he’s just a single sting in a clump of nettle. Pluck him out and another might replace him, but either way, the terror network here is so fragmented that few are likely to notice his absence. Yet when it comes to guarding these terminals, there probably is no greater mission in Iraq. Another terminal cannot just pop up and replace the loss. The people most dependent on the sale of Iraqi oil are the Iraqis.

CSM Mellinger is explicit to the sailors at ABOT about the overall goals of the mission in Iraq. Our goal in Iraqi is not to win hearts and minds. The primary goal is to make Iraq safe and secure from within, and to make it safe from its neighbors and its neighbors safe from it. Our foremost purpose is steadying Iraq on its feet. Only then can we bring most of our people home, leaving a quick reaction force in Kuwait standing by in case there of flare-ups that threaten the new Iraqi government.

Changing the Guard, Maintaining Constant Vigilance

If the multi-national force guarding the terminals is successful, we will never know the names and faces of the people on watch. But if our people fail their mission, the world will soon know the magnitude of that failure. The finest Navies in the world are there: the UK, the Australians and the US. Iraqis are also sharing in the defense.

Looking at the men and women who bear this immense burden, I think: Be vigilant. Don’t fail this mission.

Aboard the HMS Argyll

We sleep on the Normandy and next morning we boat back over to ABOT, and later come alongside the HMS Argyll to deliver goods. Then putter over to KAAOT, a tangle of decrepit metal and rusted pipes that earned the moniker “Water World.” Though KAAOT is an inviting target, it handles closer to 5% of Iraq’s wealth, and so is not as overwhelmingly critical as ABOT.

Dozens of fishing boats bob nearby, and I ask a naval officer, somewhat incredulously, why the boats are allowed to get so close. All those fancy systems, missiles and guns on the naval ships can be foiled through sheer audacity and luck, and there is no lack of homicidists willing to probe the system to find the weak spots.

The naval officer says that because KAAOT sits slightly more than one mile outside of Iranian waters, the boats can legally fish the waters up to that point. Scanning the surface, the dozens of boats are difficult even to count as they move around from place to place. Our defenses do not have an entire horizon as a free-fire zone; the attackers can come up nearly atop the tankers and KAAOT. I know practically nothing about naval warfare, yet this looks like a security nightmare drawn straight from the “worst case security scenario” handbook. And tracking the movement of all these fishing vessels does nothing about the threat of divers, submersibles, or myriad other devious means.

Battle Stations: This is not a drill

KAAOT suddenly comes to life as sailors move to battle stations. This is not an exercise. A boat is closing in on KAAOT and it might well be the launch of an attack, or merely a probe of defenses. The defenders fire flares to warn off the approaching boat, while a US Coast Guard ship slices through the water to intercept.

When a naval officer abruptly suggests we move to a different part of the platform, I think: Are we at that critical moment? But CSM Mellinger stays put.

After a few tense minutes, and just seconds before our sailors can blast it to toothpicks, the suspicious boat veers off. A consensus emerges that this was a probe of defenses. The immediate threat now subsided, we negotiate the tangle of pipes and paraphernalia, finally climbing back down the decrepit stairs and then clambering down the ladder to the transport.

Fishing dhow near the terminals

We putter away from Water World over to a US Navy Ship called the USS Firebolt. On 24 April 2004, the enemy attacked ABOT with approximately a half dozen boats, and at least one boat made it all the way under the terminal before being destroyed. Three service members were killed in that fight, and they had launched from the Firebolt.

We board the Firebolt and tour the ship, where CSM Mellinger and CMC Schneider address the crew, again stressing the importance of their mission. As they talk on the deck, dozens of boats are nearby in Iranian waters, some come zooming along close enough that I could literally hit them with a slingshot. As the boats race by, visions of the USS Cole being slammed by a boat filled with explosives come to mind. In that attack, US sailors had to race to save the ship, and were in no position to defend anything other than themselves, and seventeen sailors died. The enemy knows this. They were there, after all.

As seen from the deck of the Firebolt

After an hour or so, when the speeches are finished and the tour complete, we crawl back down another ladder into our transport and putter the expanse, navigating through the Iranian fishing boats back to the USS Normandy. Another little boat zooms by. A man aboard waves at us. I can see his teeth glinting behind his smile.

Read more of the Walk the Line series from 2005 by clicking on any of the links below:

Walk the Line, Part I
Walk the Line, Part III
Walk the Line, Part IV
Walk the Line, Part V

Read more of the Walking the Line 2007 series by clicking on any of the links below:

Walking the Line 2007, Part I
Walking the Line 2007, Part II
Walking the Line 2007, Part III

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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