AL BASRA OIL TERMINAL, Iraq – When he awakes in the morning and gazes seaward, Pete Beuttenmuller might be forgiven for thinking he is in the Florida of his youth.
Fishing boats spread across an already hazy and hot horizon. Hungry gulls dart between cargo ships.
What jolts the 28-year-old Navy lieutenant from Palm Beach County back to reality are the heavy-caliber machine gun mounted a few yards from his bunk and the ring of US and allied warships circling his temporary home, Iraq’s largest offshore oil terminal.
For anyone intent on undermining US interests in Iraq and sowing mayhem in the Persian Gulf, there are few more mouth-watering targets than the Al Basra Oil Terminal, where Beuttenmuller is stationed.
Ninety percent of Iraqi oil bound for the world market is loaded onto tankers through the terminal’s mile-long web of beige pipes and shiny metal walkways.
The consequences would be catastrophic if a bomb were to send it all up in flames, Beuttenmuller said.
“If someone wanted to really cripple Iraq, all they’d need to do is shut down work here,” he said. “Without this terminal, there’s no way that Iraq could ever get back on its feet. That’s why our mission is so important.”
About 800 US and coalition sailors and eight warships patrol the narrow waterway between Iraq, Kuwait, and Iran to ensure that sectarian violence or terrorists don’t endanger the two Iraqi offshore oil terminals.
With bloodshed and mayhem occurring daily throughout much of Iraq, little attention is paid to this corner of the war, where US and coalition forces have achieved a semblance of normalcy.
Since 2004, the force has overseen the repair and refurbishment of both Iraqi oil platforms. Earlier this year, both stations became operational for the first time since the 2003 US invasion, and now about 1.8 million barrels of oil are flowing through the two stations each day.
The uninterrupted flow is estimated to produce more than $5 billion in oil revenue for Iraq each year, money that in theory the country will use for federal spending and reconstruction efforts, instead of US taxpayer dollars.
Much more work remains to upgrade Iraq’s pipelines and oil facilities to increase the country’s export capacity to the government’s target of 3 billion barrels a day. While that is underway, it is up to Task Force 158, as the coalition force is known, to ensure nothing undermines the progress made so far.
Since 2003, there have been approximately 400 insurgent or terrorist attacks against pipelines, pumping stations, oil fields, and other parts of Iraq’s oil infrastructure, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
In one attempt, terrorists with Al Qaeda in Iraq packed explosives onto a local fishing boat in April 2004. The common vessel, known as a dhow, set sail from the Iraqi port of Um Qasr for the KAOOT terminal, the smaller of the two platforms about 10 miles offshore.
A US Navy coastal patrol boat, the USS Firebolt, intercepted the dhow before it reached the terminal. While a strike force was preparing to board the vessel, the militants detonated their bomb, killing two sailors and one Coast Guardsman.
The method was similar to the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, in which Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for killing 17 American sailors.
Naval commanders in the Gulf say that another suicide attack is the biggest threat they fear for their crew and the oil platforms.
After the 2004 incident, coalition warships expanded the exclusion zone, allowing no commercial vessels within 2 miles of the two oil terminals.
That no-go zone flirts with the unmarked boundary between Iraqi and Iranian territorial waters.
But coalition commanders say that they haven’t seen Iran’s attitude toward coalition forces turn more aggressive with this change.
“We aren’t trying to escalate tensions here. We are aware of Iran, of course, but they aren’t our primary concern,” said Australian Captain Phillip Spedding, who took over command of Task Force 158 last month.