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Enforcing Sanctions on Iraq

November 1, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times: The United States and its principal ally in the gulf, the Australians, have tightened the embargo on Iraq, an embargo that’s carried out under the auspices of the United Nations. What really struck me in a kind of strategic sense was something I hadn’t appreciated before, was just how aggressive — and I don’t mean in a hostile sense — but just how active this embargo is, how they’re really determined to shut down everything, and how they’re taking a very, very energetic posture to this. It’s not just a matter of what the Navy and U.S. Air Force and British planes are doing over Iraq, it’s what they’re doing on the seas adjacent to Iraq and even in Iraq’s territorial waters.

CAPT. WILLIAM. E. DEWES, U.S.S. Shiloh: Right now there is a sort of a oil-for-food resolution that’s in place, and in this, Iraq trades a certain amount of oil for foodstuffs. And so that is the legal cargo that is allowed to go in and out of Iraq. And what the multinational force is doing out here is making sure that all the traffic that goes in and out of Iraq is of that nature.

SPOKESMAN: This is coalition warship. What is your cargo? Over.

MICHAEL GORDON: One thing that’s really striking is these ships are positioned, not just in the Persian Gulf, but very, very far north. They’re actually in, some of them, Iraq’s territorial waters. At this point in time, there’s an Australian ship, the “Melbourne,” that’s about six miles off the coast of Iraq, right in the way of the main waterway. Maybe 15, 20 miles away from Iraq was our ship, the “Shiloh,” which is an aegis Ticonderoga class cruiser. This is a billion dollar ship that’s just bristling with armament. And its main feature is the very, very sophisticated command and control center that can monitor the air and sea picture from the Horn of Africa all the way up to Turkey. This is the command ship for the operation.

CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER JEFFREY FISHEL, U.S. Navy: We are the air defense commander for the battle group, which means we are the nerve center for the whole battle group. This is a 3-D presentation. You’re going to see if they’re outbound-inbound. By our display, you can see where they are in relation to what’s called the KAA, which is the main waterway in and out of Iraq. We also can send the helicopters up. Right there we have a helo with a contact of interest and we have a couple friendlies in the area.

MICHAEL GORDON: This is a ship that has a very elaborate command and control center and they also have this helicopter capability. At night the Iraqis send out, try to bring their contraband out, and they didn’t get too far before the Australians scrambled and they sent out a couple of small boats full of guys to go board these craft and see what was going on. At the same time, a helicopter takes off from the “Shiloh” and flies to the scene.

SPOKESMAN: What we’re doing is we’re flying our helicopter. He’s got a flare which allows us to see very well at night. We’re looking in particular at night usually for dows that are smuggling various things.

MICHAEL GORDON: So it provides a means of monitoring back at the command ship. And the helicopter above does more than watch what’s going on, there’s a guy sitting behind a .50-caliber machinegun; in case things get too hairy, they can intervene and put some firepower down. This operation happens in the dead of night, and what happened was they caught three of these ships with oil and dates, which is cargo that can be lucrative and can’t be exported under U.N. sanctions, and sent them back.

COMMODORE PETER SINCLAIR, Australian Navy: We’re all here doing the same role, of course, which is enforcing the sanctions against Iraq. With more assets, we’ve been able to board every single ship going in and out of Iraq. Previously, we were operating probably at a 30 percent to 40 percent effectiveness, and now we’re in the 85 percent to 95 percent percentile of effectiveness.

MICHAEL GORDON: We also saw an actual boarding. Very interestingly, it was an Iraqi ship with an Iraqi crew and Iraqi passports. And we got in the boat with the U.S. Navy. They went up in these small boats up to the Iraqi ship, clamored up onto them, took the crew, put them on one side of the ship for everybody’s safety, and then inspected the vessel.

SPOKESMAN: This vessel happens to be coming from UAE to Iraq. It’s a group three tanker. It should be in ballast. There should be no cargo on board. We’re just verifying that.

MICHAEL GORDON: It turned out to be clean. It certainly wasn’t very glamorous. What was interesting is the Iraqis have been through this many times before and knew exactly what to do and were pretty cooperative, and I thought pretty well intimidated and of no mind to challenge this. We learned a number of very interesting things being out here. Over the past year, Iran, which previously had more or less turned a blind eye to the smuggling, has, for its own reasons, begun to close its territorial waters to smugglers.

COMMODORE PETER SINCLAIR: I’ve actually seen an increase in professionalism in the Iranian navy over my time here. And on several occasions they have assisted the coalition force by pushing the smugglers out into international waters so that the coalition force can board them.

MICHAEL GORDON: There are several threats to the allied effort. One is theoretically provided by the Iraqis themselves. We saw an episode where an Iraqi ship patrol craft moved a little bit out to sea, and there was a lot of activity on the “Shiloh.”

SPOKESMAN: We have two contacts of interest that might be in the area, and we’re trying to find out what they’re doing. If it’s determined that they’re definitely of interest and could be hostile, then they’ll be launching the aircraft.

CAPT. WILLIAM E. DEWES: Every day, one of the helos up here is in an alert status, so that if something happens that somebody wants to get information on, we can respond rapidly.

MICHAEL GORDON: Very quick response. They scrambled the helicopter crews; they rushed out, took off to check it out. So they don’t discount the Iraqi threat.

CAPT. WILLIAM E. DEWES: The main Iraqi threat, as far as I’m concerned, is something we haven’t thought about. The Iraqis have shown themselves in the past quite capable of thinking out of the box. And the conventional threats, I think, we have anticipated them. I think we have excellent means with which to deal with them. I think it’s a surprise thing that they pull out of their hat that we didn’t know about– that’s… that’s the one that we need to be alert for.

MICHAEL GORDON: The “Shiloh” that we were on is a very sophisticated ship with tomahawk cruise missiles, harpoon anti-ship missiles, a phalanx, gattling gun, but what it’s not really intended to do is to defend against a guy in a dow or a wooden boat or a rowboat or anything that somehow sneaks close to a vessel with a bomb on board, as happened in the case of the “Cole.”

SPOKESMAN: Apparently we’re engaged in a system navigation technique at the moment avoiding this vessel. That would be the most close proximity we’d ever want. We have the weapons out for a quick response.

SPOKESPERSON: Set a course 130.

SPOKESMAN: Where we are physically and also with all the kind of terrorist things going on, you know, we have to consider whether that dow might have a bomb on it, for instance, or something else along those lines. So obviously we have people topside whose job it is to look at this with that point of view.

MICHAEL GORDON: This comes down to a sailor standing watch on a deck with a pair of binoculars just like he might have done 100 years ago or 200 years ago, and guns– you know, side arms, machineguns. It’s as if the U.S. Navy was preparing to fight pirates 100 years ago. But that’s essentially what it comes down to when you’re dealing with this kind of threat.

MARGARET WARNER: Gordon’s next report will be from the U.S. Aircraft carrier the “Abraham Lincoln,” which is enforcing the no-fly zone in southern Iraq.