By
NBC News correspondent
updated 4/8/2003 12:30:04 PM ET 2003-04-08T16:30:04

In one of the first hostile actions of the war, the Navy’s elite SEALs, joined by British Royal Marines, raided two massive oil terminals in the Persian Gulf, just off the Iraqi coast. Now a detachment from the U.S. Coast Guard is helping to get those terminals working again, so oil can again flow and earn cash for the coffers of a new Iraqi government.

More than a million barrels of oil a day had been flowing through Mina al-Bakr, or MABOT, before the war. But on the evening of March 20, as the U.S. and British special forces approached, the oil workers had already fled, as had United Nations officials supervising the “Food for Oil” program from the terminal.

Instead, the commandos captured 15 Iraqi soldiers, armed with grenade launchers, AK-47s and surface-to-air missiles.

Lieutenant Commander Tim Shea was there that night. The Coast Guard reservist — and full-time police officer from Sonomish County, Wa. — was set to occupy the terminal along with a handful of other men and women from the Coast Guard. Before the war, 80 percent of Iraq’s oil flowed through the two 48-inch pipelines from the Al-Faw Peninsula, directly into the holds of supertankers.

Shea says coalition leaders feared that the Iraqi military might quickly sabotage and blow up the terminals. That would cause an environmental catastrophe, and impede the naval assault against the peninsula.

“If it was destroyed, the ecological disaster would have been of immense proportions,” Shea said. “The amount of oil that comes through the pipes here would have equaled an Exxon Valdez every two hours.”

But now, one of the first Iraqi targets to fall may be one of the first to help get a post-Saddam Iraq on its feet again. Iraq has the world’s second-largest reserve of crude oil and it’s oil that will provide the income Iraq needs to rebuild after the war.

There’s little detail about how this will be done right now, but the U.S. Coast Guard says it’s doing its best to make sure MABOT is ready to go when they do. American oil giant Halliburton helped build the terminal in the 1970’s, and it’s nearly certain Americans will help once again, in one way or another, to get it working.

“There’s a big push to get the Iraqi people on the gas and oil platforms,” said Michael Kazek, executive officer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Boutwell. The Boutwell has been stationed near the oil terminal for weeks, providing security and support to the crew under Shea’s command a few miles away. “The whole goal is to get Iraq back in control of their ports and platforms. So they can start exporting oil.”

The Coast Guard has spent a difficult few weeks aboard MABOT, in the shadow of a huge poster of Saddam Hussein, now turned upside down. The terminal is infested with cockroaches, the steel catwalks are rusting. Two small generators provide minimal electricity, and there’s still no running water.

Once a week, each member of the crew takes a boat through the choppy waters of the Persian Gulf and spends some time aboard a Navy ship, taking a hot shower and eating something other than “Meals Ready to Eat” from a box.

Still, they are making headway — the Coast Guard has established radio facilities, and cleaned up enough rooms to make their stay slightly more comfortable. And the computers are working — about the only things on the terminal that didn’t require a massive overhaul when they arrived.

“We came here and found all the computer systems up,” Shea said. “All we had to do was change the language from Arabic to English. It’s Microsoft!” [MSNBC is a joint venture of NBC and Microsoft.]

Some might wonder why the Coast Guard is involved in military operations so far from home. But it’s been participating in force protection in the Persian Gulf for nearly two years. And smaller patrol boats that haven’t been used since the Vietnam war have now been resurrected for this war — to search commercial vessels and small fishing boats near the Iraqi coast.

Almost as importantly, the Coast Guard is cruising along another potential flashpoint — the Iraqi-Iranian maritime border. Some say it’s better that they’re engaged there than more heavily armed Navy ships, which may also explain why the Coast Guard has been escorting boats bearing humanitarian supplies into Iraq.

“We’re not a gray hull going up the river,” Kazek said, referring to the color of a typical American or British warship. “We’re a white hull with ‘U.S. Coast Guard’ on it, with an orange stripe. And it’s a little less intimidating.”

(NBC News correspondent Hanson Hossein is on assignment in the Persian Gulf.)

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