OFF THE COAST OF IRAQThey live a weird, watery, Mad Max kind of life, the 39 U.S. Coast Guard reservists who have landed the unlikely job of guarding the Mina al Bakr oil rig 13 miles off the coast of Iraq. Commandeered by Navy SEALs on March 19, the nearly milelong riga ramshackle, rusty contraption overrun with cockroaches and connected to Iraq's southern oil fields by underwater pipelinewas Iraq's only legal export point for oil before the war.
Now, stagnant until it's clear who controls the country's fuel, the rig's metal bridges and mildewed rooms are home to tanned Coasties clad in cutoff T-shirts and camouflage pants, many toting M-16s and makeshift fly-swatters crafted from fishing rope. Anticipating that the rig will end up back in Iraqi hands, the reservists have left things much as they found them, apart from one polite, but poignant, change. A huge portrait of Saddam Hussein that once welcomed visitors to the terminal has, like his regime, been turned upside down.
"The war started here first, and it will finish here first," says Capt. Michael Cochrane, commander of both the British frigate HMS Chatham and the coalition battle group charged with guarding Iraq's two offshore oil terminals until the fuel's future owners are determined. Unlike Iraq's north and center, where chaos continues, the threat here in these peaceful-seeming southern waters is steadily decreasing. "Things are returning to normalcy," says Cochrane, pointing out that Iraqi fishermen anxious to get back to work began trolling again in their wooden dhows last week.
But in the limbo between war and peace, normalcyboth for coalition troops and local residentsis still anything but normal. The Chatham, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Boutwell, and the Danish frigate Olsen Fischer are charged with the delicate dance of keeping the terminalsand the hundreds of ships still in the southern Gulfsafe from waterborne threats without antagonizing neighboring Iran. It's a case of good fences making good neighbors, as Iranian and coalition vessels maintain a "nonconfrontational" relationship, says Cochrane, by keeping both a close watch on, and a healthy distance from, each other. "Our behavior here must show the Iranians," and, by extension, the Arab world"that this was a mission of liberation, not occupation," says Cochrane.
It's a role that suits the Coast Guard. Smaller boats and an easy familiarity with coastal patrolling make this mission similar to many others the Coast Guard carries out off U.S. shores, for one thing. Equally important is that "we're less intimidating" than the U.S. Navy, says Boutwell Capt. Scott Genovese of his 178-person crew, few of whom ever suspected they'd end up in the Persian Gulf. He points to a small, but telling, distinction: "We're a white ship." The Brits and Danes, with embassies in Tehran and fairly normal diplomatic relations with Iran, can troll these tight waters in heavily armed warships without causing much of a stir. But U.S. naval gray hulls, bristling with missiles, might simply stoke an already hot fire.
Since they were taken in lightning raids on the night of the war's first strikes, the oil platforms themselves have not been threatened. Suicide boats are still a possibility, so the Boutwell runs daily interdictions of local fishing boats on small, motorized rafts called ribs. Teams of about a dozen set out on the glorified inner tubes, traveling up to 50 knots to interceptand, sometimes, to boardboats that behave suspiciously or get too close to the platforms or the coalition ships themselves. Still, "the war is basically over in this part of Iraq," says Cochrane, pointing out that as Iraqi troops across the country set aside their weapons, a similar sense of de-escalation is taking hold here: "We're becoming more of a policing force."
Some of the war's first Iraqi surrenders took place on the platforms, in fact. Before the war began, Saddam replaced civilian engineers with armed soldiers on both platformsthe southern Mina al Bakr, which pumped about 2 billion barrels of crude daily under the auspices of the UN Oil for Food program, and its smaller sister Khawr al' Amaya, inactive since the first Gulf war. "They were put here to defend and destroy," says Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Jim Howatson, in charge of the reserve unit now running the rig. But when coalition forces arrived the night of the 19th, the Iraqis set down their arms. In direct defiance of Hussein's orders to torch the terminals if coalition forces advanced, "the Iraqi military on board decided not to explode the platform, so that Iraq would have an income after the war," says Howatson, recalling what Iraqi officers told interpreters after the terminals' capture. It's what coalition forces want, tooif only so that they can go home. "We want the fishermen to fish, and the oil to flow," says Cochrane. "We have to welcome (the idea) that the Iraqi people want to get back to normal. Otherwise, we'll be here for years."