Iraq's Only Port Cleared for Humanitarian Shipments

DOHA, Qatar, March 26, 2003 (ENS) - Mines have been cleared from the sole Iraqi port of Umm Qasr so that ships bearing food and relief supplies for the Iraqi people can enter the port, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations of the U.S. Central Command, said today.

"Humanitarian supplies have been loaded and are moving on their way to Umm Qasr as we speak," said General Brooks. "The port is being prepared for reopening, and port workers have been invited to come back and begin work."

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A view, from Kuwait, of the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr where the United Nations' Oil for Food Programme has been conducted. (Photo courtesy UN)
On Monday, U.S. led coalition forces intercepted and boarded four Iraqi vessels containing nearly 100 mines in the Khor Abd Allah waterway that leads to Umm Qasr. The vessels also carried nearly 50 passengers. The three tugs and one barge were equipped with concealing devices made of hollowed 50 gallon barrels lined in rows, in an attempt to simulate a cargo barge and tugs.

Upon intercept, a U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal team boarded the Iraqi vessels, and force security teams formed by the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Army, as well as the Kuwaiti Naval Force, arrived for stabilizing and transport of the mines, vessels and crew.

The mines were transported to Camp Patriot, Kuwait, by coalition vessels under the protection of seaward security forces for further analysis and destruction. After this discovery, coalition forces view all Iraqi tugs as a potential threat, and are constantly vigilant to anything that may be used to conceal naval mines.

U.S. forces have trained dolphins that are helping to determine where mines may be in the channels, Major General Gene Renuart told reporters at U.S. Central Command on Tuesday.

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Trained U.S. Navy dolphin on its way to Iraq (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
The two dolphins, as well as several trained sea lions, part of the U.S. Navy's Mammal Maritime Unit in San Diego, California, were flown to Umm Qasr by U.S. Navy helicopters late Tuesday. The dolphins, named Tacoma and Makai, began searching for mines today.

Dolphins are used because of their exceptional biological sonar that is unmatched by hardware sonars in detecting objects in the water column and on the ocean bottom. Sea lions are used because of their very sensitive underwater directional hearing and low light level vision, the Navy Mammal Maritime Unit explains.

"They are trained to locate, detect and attach recovery pendants to deep water objects," said Commander Jon Wood, U.S. Naval Forces. "These particular animals here have an enhanced capability to find or locate moving objects," he said.

Until the dolphins arrived, British forces were charged with the task of locating the mines by hand.

Once all danger of mines is past, U.S. and international relief workers plan to enter Umm Qasr to provide public drinking water and address unsafe sanitary conditions in southern Iraq, particularly in the city of Basra to the northwest of the port.

Most of Basra has been without water since Friday when the power supply was cut. Iraqi water engineers and staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have managed to partially restart the main water pumping facility serving Basra. The ICRC estimates that 50 percent of the city's some 1.5 million residents now have access to drinking water, but while the water is drinkable, the quality is poor.

Coalition forces have started to repair the water treatment plant near Basra. A pipeline which provides water to Umm Qasr at the rate of 2.4 million liters per day will be operational by March 30, officials predict.

The British Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, "Sir Galahad" has been loaded with 232 tons of food, water, wheat, vegetable oil, blankets and medical supplies, provided by the government of Kuwait through the Kuwaiti Red Crescent. The ship has been waiting for mine clearance before heading to Umm Qasr.

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World Food Programme supplies for Iraq are stockpiled in a warehouse near Amman, Jordan (Photo WFP/Maarten Roest)
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the world's largest food aid agency, has been stockpiling food near Amman, Jordan. The United States has asked WFP to run Iraq's food distribution system, now that the UN Oil for Food Programme, on which nearly 60 percent of Iraqi people relied for food, has been suspended.

With some 2.1 million people expected to require emergency assistance in the next four weeks, WFP has already built up sufficient supplies in the region to feed two million people for one month.

Australia has announced that it will make 100,000 tons of wheat available to feed the Iraqi people.

The European Commission plans to direct at least 100 million in humanitarian relief, through the Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), to help ease the plight of victims of the Iraq war. At a meeting in Brussels on Friday, the Commission decided to make an immediate request for the release of 79 million from the emergency budget reserve.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Monday announced a $4.8 million award to Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) for assessment and management activities at the Umm Qasr port. SSA will be responsible for the effective operation of the port, allowing food and other humanitarian and reconstruction materials and supplies to be delivered.

The company, based in Seattle, Washington, will provide an initial port assessment, develop improvement plans, and supply technical expertise to ensure shipping is operational. The company will be responsible for the port pilots who will guide ships up the channel, and will manage the access of trucking companies to the port and establish a system of controls to avoid theft and corruption, said USAID.

USAID has received 20 to 30 nongovernmental agency grants for Iraq humanitarian relief, said agency Administrator Andrew Natsios who said that $30 million in grant proposals will be awarded next week.

Natsios said at a briefing Tuesday that the United States is the largest donor of assistance to Iraq, and the U.S. has made a commitment of 610,000 tons of food, plus other supplies and equipment for Iraqi relief.