The Digital Journalist
The War Offshore
August 2004

by PA1 Matthew Belson

The Royal Marine Warrant Officer looked at the group of forty or so men gathered on an open square of concrete and commanded them in a veteran's voice seasoned by years of service to dress their ranks and shoulder their Bulgarian manufactured AK-47s. He then bellowed: "Fo'ward, march!" I marveled at the universality of martial drill as this group of Iraqis stomped in cadence across the old Navy base in the port of Umm Qasr under a sweltering April sun. No matter what branch of service you are from, regardless of how democratic or totalitarian is your government, whether officer or enlisted, at some time in your military experience you will be told to march and march and march.

MARCH AND MARCH: Royal Marine Warrant Officer 2nd Class Mick Scrymgeour, 50, leads a group of trainees

USCG photo by PA1 Matthew Belson
While the Royal Marine officer led the formation, a Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer sounded-off the pace in Arabic commands such as "left," "right" and "about face." Both were members of the British-led Coalition Military Assistance Training Team (Maritime) tasked with training the nascent Iraqi Coastal Defense Force (ICDF).

For two weeks in April I had the opportunity to photograph the training of this force that would function as a Coast Guard to protect and enforce Iraq's coastal borders and territorial waters. This was my third time in southern Iraq. Once again I had to readjust my situational awareness to the threats on the ground from those present during U.S. Coast Guard boarding operations on the surrounding waterways and near Iraq's two offshore oil terminals.

I arrived in Umm Qasr courtesy of the Coast Guard Cutter Aquidneck, which dropped me off April 20 after taking aboard a group of ICDF officers for a day of training on the Khawr Abd Allah waterway. The 110-foot patrol boat was an ideal platform to introduce the Iraqi officers to patrol boat operations, as the ICDF would eventually receive five Chinese built 87-foot boats. A Coast Guard Commander, Steve Weiden, was also serving as the director of training and operations for the ICDF.

The old Iraqi Navy base was going through a building boom as new barracks, an armory, clinic and administration offices seemed to be erected over night for the more than 400 members of the ICDF. With just weeks remaining until the June 30 deadline for the transfer of power the pace of training was heightened. While many members of the ICDF had previously served in the Iraqi Navy it had been, in some cases more than a decade since anyone had worked on a ship. Remnants of the Iraqi Navy were rusting along the banks of the rivers, sometimes not more than a smoke stack poking out of the water in the channel. Dozens of these wrecks littered the waterways -- a visual reminder of the country's decades of conflict with its neighbors. Out of necessity much of the training focused on the basics of seamanship.

TYING THE KNOT: Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer Tim Hallowes, 47, teaches the basics to members of the Iraqi Coastal Defense Force

USCG photo by PA1 Matthew Belson
I would often move from class to class taught by instructors from the different countries contributing to the training team. A typical day would have a detachment of Royal Marines patrolling in their small boats while they taught coxswain skills. Royal Navy engineers would use the floating pier to demonstrate to their Iraqi students how to operate an emergency pump to control flooding. At the barracks, Royal Australian Navy Petty Officers taught knot tying and the correct way to coil a line. The echoes of marching and commands were ever present in the background.

When the schedule permitted I would go out on waterborne patrols of the port with the Royal Marines in their fast, jet-driven Combat Support Boats. During these patrols I often thought of the economic importance of this desolate port. Colorful cargo dhows and large bulk carriers usually dotted the shoreline as they discharged their cargo or took on a new load. Chances were good the U.S. Coast Guard boarded them -- the same kind of future mission for the ICDF.

ROYALS: Royal Marine Color Sergeant Kevin Shackell, 44, leads a group of Royal Marines on a patrol of the port of Umm Qasr

USCG photo by PA1 Matthew Belson
The dangers of this mission were evident when suicide bombers in boats attacked Iraq's two offshore oil terminals the night of April 24. Two sailors and one Coast Guardsman were killed trying to stop one of the attacks. The explosions were even heard in Umm Qasr.

After a week of living in the same compound with the members of the ICDF I was impressed by their sincere desire to help their country recover from its long history of wars and isolation. Admittedly, some of the Iraqi officers and enlisted would pull me aside sometimes to ask me how they could go to America. But most of them were just anxious for their boats.

When the first two patrol boats arrived May 1 the bulk of the ICDF gathered at the edge of the pier to watch the mixed crew of U.S. Navy, British and Australian sailors cast aloft mooring lines to secure the vessels. After the hoorah of their arrival faded and the boat crews and crowd headed back to the barracks, I noticed one member of the Coastal Infantry Regiment still lingering on the floating pier. I could tell that he was looking with great appreciation at these boats. It was then that I realized marching is not the only thing we had in common, but the sailor's admiration for the clean lines of a boat and a respect for the sea.

After he walked up the gangway I asked him what he thought of the patrol boats. With a smile that made his eyes squint he replied, "I like very, very much."

© PA1 Matthew Belson
Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Belson, USCGR

Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Belson is a Coast Guard Reservist attached to Coast Guard Public Affairs Detachment New York. He recently returned from a six-month deployment to the Arabian Gulf and Iraq where he was assigned to Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia. As a civilian he works as a freelance journalist.