Guarding the Gulf

Iraq’s Navy plays a vital role in securing the region’s economic lifelines

Story and photos by UNIPATH STAFF

The Iraqi Navy is evolving to meet the new challenges posed by terror networks aiming to disrupt international navigation routes in the Arabian Gulf. Compared to the pre-2003 Iraqi Navy, today’s fleet has significantly updated its tactics and procedures. The International Maritime Exercise (IMX) recognized this change and appointed Iraqi Capt. Haider Ibrahim Khayoun Alshuwaili as deputy commanding officer for the exercise, held in Bahrain in May 2017. This is a major milestone for the Iraqi Navy. Unipath interviewed Capt. Haider to learn more about his new position and what it means for the Iraqi Navy.

Unipath: As an Iraqi officer, how do you feel about being the deputy commanding officer of IMX?

Capt. Haider: It is a great honor for me to represent Iraq in this prestigious position, which proves the professionalism and capabilities of the Iraqi officer. The Iraqi Navy plays a major role in protecting navigation in the Gulf. We have all the capabilities that enable us to take on leadership positions and do our job successfully. We have experience and expertise in leadership and management operations, which has been reflected in our performance in joint exercises.

Unipath: We have seen a media focus on Iraqi Army operations in combating terrorism, but there is little coverage of the Iraqi Navy. Why is that?

Capt. Haider: I believe the Iraqi Navy has not received a fair amount of media coverage, as our mission is actually the largest. We protect the oil ports, upon which Iraq depends most heavily for its oil exports and budget. The duty of the naval force is to protect the oil facilities in the northern Arabian Gulf, which are considered fundamental to Iraq’s economy. We protect oil-loading platforms and their surrounding areas, which is a very important role — no less important than the role played by the rest of our forces, and perhaps even more important because we protect the economy of our country and the world.

It is also our duty to ensure freedom of navigation within our area of responsibility. We are not only providing protection for oil terminals, but also ensuring the passage of commercial vessels coming to Umm Qasr and Khor al-Zubair ports, among others. In addition to ensuring the safety of ships in the region, organizing navigation, and protecting ships from piracy and illegal activities, we work to reduce water pollution and organize the work of fishermen in the area to ensure it doesn’t impact navigation routes.

Unipath: How important is it for you to partner with other countries to protect regional waters?

Capt. Haider: International partnerships are evidence of Iraqis’ ability to deal with operations on a global scale. At the level of joint naval task forces, Iraq has the capabilities to manage, supervise or engage in such important exercises. In addition, terrorism and piracy are cross-border threats demanding multiple countries’ forces. No single navy can control terrorist activities and piracy, from the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to the Red Sea. We must work with our partners.

Unipath: Describe the threats on which the exercise focuses.

Capt. Haider: These threats vary from region to region, but the most prominent is the threat to global shipping routes by terrorist groups, pirates and sea mines. The proportion of these threats varies. There are some areas that face more pirate operations, such as the threat from sea mines, while in other areas, we find terrorists imposing illegal taxes on commercial ships. These groups come from areas outside the control of the state and carry out rapid theft or extortion operations of commercial vessels, exploiting the ships’ slow movement and absence of sufficient protection.

These groups help fund terrorism in the region by extorting ships. We have addressed this threat by identifying the groups’ sources of funding and logistical bases, then confining them to one isolated area where we intensify patrols and reconnaissance operations in coordination with coalition forces.

Unipath: How has Iraq upgraded its fleet?

Capt. Haider: Through the office of the commander of the naval force in Baghdad, the Navy is coordinating with international navies through embassies and coalition forces like the United States, Britain and Italy to conduct research and buy or upgrade marine equipment.

We have American equipment, which we will maintain even as we seek to obtain new equipment as well. In addition, we recently received ships through an Italian contract; these will enhance the capabilities of the Iraqi Navy. We have a contract to purchase and develop tugboats to support maritime operations in the northern Arabian Gulf. Finally, the leadership of the naval force continues to develop and acquire new marine equipment based on new requirements and challenges.

We work in parallel lines of effort in the process of developing our naval force. The first is to purchase marine equipment to support our operations within our area of responsibility and establish special rules in the forward operating area to protect oil facilities and other sites vital to our economy. This will help reduce the amount of fuel we consume, since we are currently forced to launch from Umm Qasr Naval Base, which is a long distance from the sites. We are coordinating with U.S. forces to build the new base.

Our second line of effort is to develop Iraqi personnel and focus on command and control by preparing distinguished officers and sending them to countries with expertise in the maritime field, which will help develop Iraqi expertise in administration and management. We have sent officers to multiple countries to gain experience in logistics, arming and planning. We continue to work diligently on both these tracks.

Unipath: There is a high probability that Iraq will take over leadership of Combined Task Force 151. How do you feel about this?

Capt. Haider: As an Iraqi, I am very proud to see an Iraqi officer taking over this prestigious and important position, which demonstrates the world’s confidence in the capabilities of the Iraqi Navy. We have the experience and ability to bear this responsibility and carry out our duty to the best of our ability.