Protecting The Coast

Adm. Ali Hussein Ali Led the Navy and Coastal Defense Force with Professionalism and Pride


Listening to Adm. Ali Hussein Ali, commander of the Iraqi Navy and Coastal Defense Force, brings to mind the words of the great Iraqi poet Mudhafar Al-Nawab in his masterpiece Chief of Sailors. His words echo confidence and deep faith in Iraq’s naval forces:

“I know the Chief of Sailors, he never leaves the deck of his warship;
The Chief has no limits, beyond the limits of other ships; 
He selects the most loyal sailors of the good old days 
Who can predict a year’s worth of high tides in low seas.”

Adm. Ali Hussein Ali, commander of the Iraqi Navy and Coastal Defense Force

Adm. Ali Hussein Ali

Adm. Ali is a courageous officer who knows the behavior of the sea and is able to lead his crew safely to shore. His mission is complicated and requires a leader who knows how to choose the most qualified men for the mission, a leader who must possess the wisdom to ease tensions in a sensitive region that suffers from unresolved disputes over waterways. Such a region is a powder keg that requires only a small spark to explode. Adm. Ali is a humble and calm gentleman; indeed, he is an old school officer and leader who earned the trust of Iraqis to be a watchful eye on the country’s vital economic infrastructure: Iraq’s main oil export terminals and commercial seaports. After years of service, the admiral planned to hand command of the Navy to a successor in late 2015. Before doing so, he spoke to Unipath about his leadership philosophy:

“Leadership is the art of managing personnel, and the most important task of the leader is taking care of his rank and file and his ability to manage an enterprise and make it synchronized with other elements of the armed forces. The leader must never stop developing his skills through studying the cutting edge of naval technologies and building the capability of other armed forces. This is vital if the navy is to be a deterrent force against any outside threats. In addition, we must build bridges of cooperation and friendship with regional and international naval forces to obtain knowledge for our Soldiers on new technologies.”

Adm. Ali was able to rebuild the Iraqi Navy from scratch after it suffered severe damage in the Gulf War. Today, the Iraqi Navy has a fleet that is capable of defending the nation’s waterways and is awaiting new ships. During his conversation with Unipath, Adm. Ali repeatedly emphasized the training and development of forces and considered them an essential aspect in building a professional navy:

“It is no secret that building a navy is different and more difficult than building other forces. Shipbuilding takes a long time, and the costs are heavy for Iraq’s budget. And if the financial situation allows the Navy to acquire these new ships, it will take years to assemble and train crews before the arrival of the vessels. Nevertheless, and despite all challenges, we were able to sign a contract for new Navy components from different origins. We currently have ships that were made in the United States and Italy, and they are sufficient to sustain the mission. But we wish to increase our fleet to be able to conduct missions and protect our national waterways, oil terminals and commercial seaports, doing an effective job with less strain on our existing forces.”

He added: “We have striven to update and arm the Iraqi Navy and diversify our weapons. We focus on training. We have a training center in Iraq at the Arabic Gulf Academy for Maritime Studies, which trains officers and warrant officers. We also send many of our officers and Soldiers abroad to be trained on the new ships. Furthermore, we send officers to the Iraqi War College and to advanced naval schools in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“We accomplished a milestone by building good relationships with neighboring countries’ naval forces, especially Kuwait’s. Our Navy participated in international exercises held in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and outside the Arabian Gulf in the Gulf of Oman. The Iraqi Navy always earned the highest scores in these events. I personally attended many maritime conferences, whether in the region or in Western nations, and I gave presentations about the capability of our naval forces. I’m pleased to see our Navy linked with the other naval forces for training and exercises.”

The admiral said: “We have to protect critical economic and strategic infrastructure among regional waterways. These areas have heavy traffic, including fishing boats, commercial cargo ships and small boats that belong to different nations of the region. These waterways have suffered several terrorist attacks and require strong determination and professional standards on the part of naval personnel because any mistake or miscalculation could lead to national catastrophe.

“The Basra, Oumaia and other oil terminals are considered the strategic lifeblood of the Iraqi economy. More than 90 percent of Iraqi oil is exported via these terminals. Therefore, we must protect them precisely and accurately. The Navy provides two types of protection: point protection and border protection. Point protection requires posting naval forces at terminals; border protection means patrolling waters in a restricted radius around terminals. We have firm regulations to prohibit small boats and unauthorized ships from entering certain zones. We remain on high alert to prepare for any emergency, but we understand the difficult nature of waterways and the mistakes fishing boats can make. To preserve innocent lives, we use no deadly force unless we have exhausted all other options.”

The wisdom of Adm. Ali helps maintain good relations with naval forces in the region. And his reluctance to arrest innocent fishermen who may have strayed into national waters has averted media storms that once fueled anger among Iraqis and their neighbors:

“Perhaps regional cooperation between Iraq and brotherly nations was initiated with the naval forces’ good relationships and extended from there to the political level. Following the toppling of the old regime, the United Arab Emirates provided swift boats to the Iraqi Navy, and that became the cornerstone for rebuilding our naval forces. In addition, our frequent meetings during maritime events held in different countries have helped strengthen relationships among participating nations. Sometimes we don’t see the benefits quickly, but these benefits always emerge in the future. The strongest relationship we have in the region is our friendship with the Kuwaiti Navy and Coast Guard. This relationship helps to build a cooperative protocol to turn in the fishing boats that cross into national waterways. In the past, they were arrested and interrogated, which provoked media spin. The protocol gives the Kuwaiti Navy the flexibility to turn over Iraqi fishing boats to our patrols. In return, we do the same. We no longer notice the media talking about mistreatment of fishermen. We also conducted bilateral training with the Kuwaitis. The positive relationship with the Kuwaiti Navy strengthened our overall relationship with Kuwait and other nations.”

The admiral’s concerns about the challenges that face the Iraqi Navy revealed his compassion for his troops and their equipment:

“The biggest challenge is the distance between the mission area and the base, which wears out engines and equipment on board and exhausts crews. Because of the demands of the long trip, fresh crews don’t get quick security briefings from departing crews. This continuous back and forth leads to higher demand for maintenance and spare parts. Unresolved border issues with neighboring countries are processed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but never hinder our mission. As I mentioned in the beginning, our Navy enjoys productive relationships with neighboring naval forces. We rely on relationships with them to conduct our daily missions.”

Asked to provide a message to future leaders of the Navy, the admiral responded:

“I feel satisfied because I completed my mission as the commander of the Navy honorably and, God willing, I will be remembered by Navy men for my good deeds. I would like to give humble advice to the leaders who will fill this honorable seat after me. They must focus on learning about world navies and their latest technology. They must emphasize training: Regardless of how advanced the weapons are, without proper and continuous training, the weapons will be useless. My advice is to focus on training, focus on reading, and focus on keeping skills current and giving their troops enough time to pass their experiences onto the next generation to preserve professionalism.”