U.S. sailors enforce sanctions in the Persian Gulf
Every day, Americans come face to face with Iraqis
By Becky Diamond
ABOARD THE USS VALLEY FORGE (CNN) -- In the northern Persian Gulf, Iraqi smugglers, sailors and tradesmen play a tense game of cat and mouse with U.S. Navy sailors looking for contraband.
It is the only place in the world where U.S. armed forces interact with Iraqis every day.
The Americans are part of a coalition from 11 countries that are enforcing U.N. sanctions against Iraq imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Now, these operations are taking place at a time of heightened tensions, with the possibility of a new war against Iraq looming ominously close.
Drops of saltwater pelt Petty Officer Rolando Robles as he climbs down the shaky rope ladder of the USS Valley Forge, a U.S. Navy warship currently deployed just outside Iraqi's territorial waters.
A rigid-hull inflatable boat rocks back and forth, 20 feet below him, its captain trying to steer it close enough to the Valley Forge for Robles and ten men to jump in without falling into the sea beneath them.
It's another day on the job. Robles is setting out with his "boarding team," a small group of sailors who board ships bound from Iraqi ports to inspect their cargo and ensure that they are complying with U.N. Resolution 986, which imposes economic sanctions against Iraq and allows for oil to be traded for food.
These missions are known as "maritime interception operations," and their goal is to deny Iraq profits from trading their oil and other goods -- profits that could be used to fund a weapons development program.
Known to his shipmates on the USS Valley Forge as "The Senator," because he reaches out to the crews on the ships they are inspecting, Robles is responsible for security on these boardings in a very tense time. A small 9-millimeter pistol hangs from a harness on his thigh, a black flak vest is tightly secured around his upper body and a radio headset hangs around his neck.
"You never know what you will find on one of these missions, what situation you could be in," Robles says, fixing his radio unit.
Boarding the al-Asaad
He is on his way to board a ship flying a tattered Iraqi flag off its stern. The al-Asaad is a dilapidated steamer anchored about 100 yards from the menacing guns of the Valley Forge. Coalition warships patrolling the waterway queried the al-Asaad, as they do every ship that leaves an Iraqi port.
Each trading vessel must have a U.N. letter of approval for its cargo. In the case of the al-Asaad, a decision was made to conduct an inspection of the ship's cargo. Such decisions are based on the ship's last port of call and its history in the area.
The al-Asaad arrived at this holding area 10 days ago and was boarded by another team from the Valley Forge. Those sailors say they found cargo holds filled with 300 tons of hay and no U.N. letter of approval. Hay, one coalition sailor noted, has historically been used to hide oil shipments. "Nine out of ten say that they only have hay but then there's oil," he said.
When a ship is found to have illegal cargo, the contraband will either be confiscated or the ship will be ordered to return to its last port of call. In the case of oil, Kuwait has the right to sell seized oil and use the profits as part of war reparations from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"My best friend is the person who speaks English on these ships -– [they're] sometimes hard to find," Robles says. It's common to find Iraqi crewmembers on board, and "The Senator" likes to ask them what they think of Saddam Hussein or what they think of America.
"They usually say that they have no problem with the people of the United States and that they are just tradesmen trying to make money for their families." Often he says, they ask for basketball scores. But Robles knows that "it's hard to argue with a group of men armed to the teeth."
Preparing for the unexpected
Robles and his team travel towards the al-Asaad with the guns and missiles of the Valley Forge clearly visible to the trading ship's crew. The U.S. sailors climb up another rope ladder one by one as the al-Asaad's crew gathers in a group towards the front of the ship.
Robles runs scenarios through his mind, preparing himself for the unexpected. While he has not encountered any violence during these missions, he is used to what he calls "passive resistance" and quite often crew members on a ship being boarded "have to be motivated to comply."
While Robles and his security team make sure the ship is secure, another U.S. sailor talks with the captain of the al-Asaad, who informs them that he still has not made up his mind whether to return to port or dump the hay.
The choice is his. The USS Valley Forge will continue to hold the ship until he makes a decision. (The captain of the al-Asaad would later decide to turn the ship around and head back to its last port-of-call in southern Iraq.)
Robles and his team return to the inflatable boat and make their way back to their home ship, where he will return to his job working on the ship's communication systems.
He says these missions "break the monotony of a desk job and I feel like I'm participating in something big. I enjoy the adventure and the thrill."
But he says he also feels bad for crews on the ships he boards, such as the al-Asaad. "These guys are just seamen trying to make money for their families."
The Valley Forge's "Senator" is not out there campaigning for votes. But, he is out there representing his country, presenting a fair and friendly face, even as the clouds of war take shape on the horizon.