The HMS Lancaster docks in Abu Dhabi before returning to patrol the northern Gulf and the oil platforms crucial to Iraq's political success.
UK frigate takes local Christmas break
Abu Dhabi // Cmdr Rory Bryan is well aware that his ship, the HMS Lancaster, has one tricky assignment: protecting a "very tempting" target for anyone seeking to destabilise Iraq's fledgling government. The British frigate, which docked in Abu Dhabi this week, is part of a combined task force that patrols the North Arabian Gulf, ensuring maritime security around the Iraqi oil platforms of Al Basrah and Khawr Al Amaya, rigs that provide more than two per cent of the world's oil.
An attack on the platforms would cause a surge in oil prices, which could be devastating in the current fragile financial climate. In some of the busiest waters in the world, cluttered with fishing boats, dhows, oil tankers and warships, the Lancaster rigorously polices the 2,000-metre exclusion zones around the rigs. With her crew on shifts of six hours on, six hours off, they are always alert. "It would be a serious blow to young Iraq if anything were to happen to the platforms," Cmdr Bryan said. "It would affect Iraq's GDP significantly if there were to be an attack."
That is no understatement. Over 75 per cent of Iraq's income comes from the rigs, making them a prime target for myriad militant groups. "Clearly they are a tempting target," said Cmdr Bryan, whose ship, just 18 years old, has already seen a lifetime of action, from chasing down drug runners in the West Indies to warding off pirates. As well as protecting the rigs, the British navy has a key role in training Iraqis to take over the task.
Protection of the Khawr Al Amaya platform will be transferred to the Iraqi navy this year, and Al Basra terminal will be under Iraqi protection in the next two to three years, Cmdr Bryan said. Though most of the training is undertaken by a naval team on the ground, the Lancaster itself is involved in "ad hoc" training. "We often help them by getting Iraqi personnel to come to sea to see how we do business, because they are obviously going to be doing it themselves," he said. "We are very much about the Iraqis and our job is to make sure that the fledgling Iraqi navy can get back on its feet."
It remains unclear just how the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq by July, announced on Wednesday, will affect British and coalition ships protecting the rigs. The Iraqi government has approved a draft law to ban any military activities on its territory, waters or in its airspace without prior approval by Baghdad. "The status of forces agreement as I understand it will apply to all maritime forces. I don't know as to exactly the impact that will have on the HMS Lancaster. All I can say is that we are preparing to go on patrolling up there after Christmas," Cmdr Bryan said.
The US, also part of the coalition that patrols the platforms, has an agreement with the Iraqi government that will allow its troops to remain until 2011. Australia, the current commander of Combined Task Force 158, of which the Lancaster is a part, has indicated that if no pact is ratified by the end of the year, it will withdraw from the country and redeploy their navy ship that helps to patrol the platforms.
In waters so close to Iran, there are other worries for the Lancaster. In March last year, 15 British navy personnel from the HMS Cornwall were captured and held for 12 days by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which accused them of straying into Iran's territorial waters, an assertion that Britain denied. "Given some of the behaviour that has gone on in the past, you'd be surprised if we didn't watch them but everything that I have experienced has been cordial and polite," Cmdr Bryan said.
After 10 days in Abu Dhabi, the Lancaster will return to the northern Gulf until February, when it is scheduled to return to the UK. On its way out it will be involved in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, where there have been more than 100 attempts at piracy over the past year, and more than 40 hijackings. Under a recent agreement, Britain can now hand over any suspected pirates captured on the high seas to Kenya, removing a key legal obstacle to those patrolling the area. Previously, foreign navies had been reluctant to detain suspects because of uncertainties over where they would stand trial.
In the Gulf of Aden, the Lancaster's duty is "mainly being a reassuring presence for all the ships and if anything were to happen we would be there to assist", Cmdr Bryan said. "I don't want to speak specifically about operations, or the rules of engagement which we would apply, but we are clearly capable of boarding and stopping a piracy incident because of the firepower that we have aboard." The 133-metre frigate is armed with a close-range air defence missile system, machine guns, anti-submarine torpedoes and a 14-tonne Merlin helicopter.
With all that ahead, the captain and crew will now relax in the capital over Christmas before setting sail just before the new year. email@example.com