Friday, March 23, 2007

Clear The Decks

The news of the capture of 15 British Navy personnel in the Gulf is made more poignant for me through a number of past experiences.

Last April

First, less than a year ago I looked down upon Iraqi territorial waters where this incident has now taken place. I was travelling by plane from Arbil in Northern Iraq to Dubai in the Gulf State of the United Arab Emirates. So I looked out of a port side window in order to see the Shat-al-Arab River where it forms the border with Iran.

As we moved south we came to Iraqi territorial waters and then to the High Sea in the Gulf. These immediate areas were packed with shipping arriving and leaving from the Iraqi Faw Peninsula and neighbouring Kuwait. It was in the Iraqi waters that it is claimed the capture of our troops took place.

50 Years Earlier

Secondly, when I undertook my National Service in Iraq in 1955 and 1956, I was stationed at an RAF Movements Unit at Basra. It was situated on the bank of the Shat-al-Arab River. Earlier versions of the Naval Frigate, the HMS Cornwall turned up from time to time at our quayside. On one occasion, a group of us bordered one of these Frigates and travelled down river to a port near the edge of the Faw Peninsula in order to play a cricket match against the British Management at an Oil Refinery.

When we approached the Iranian town of Abadan on the opposite side of the Shat-al-Arab, we had to be cleared from the decks in case we were spotted by the Iranians. RAF troops seen on a Frigate would have created a diplomatic incident. We did, however, glance out on Abandan from a position just below the deck.

By Boat on the Shat-al-Arab

Finally, I was a regular traveller by a petrol-driven boat from our camp to the docks in Basra when my job was extended from my original work of linking with Iraqi State Railways. I then also covered Shipping Line work, with a group of us sometimes needing to go down stream to visit Ships anchored on the Iraqi side of the river. But it was normally just myself with an Iraqi who drove the boat - we were once driven back by stormy weather.

Such trips on the river occurred in an area close to where eight British troops were captured by Iranians in 2004.

The Current Crisis

It is to be hoped that Margaret Beckett's efforts quickly work and that the 15 captured troops are immediately released. It is important for their own well-being and that of their families, friends and colleagues. It is also a crisis we can do without in the massive complexities of our relationship with Iran and Iraq.

I will be paying special attention to developments. Not least because I see them through the prism of my past experiences.


calgacus said...

I don't know whether the Iranians or the British government are telling the truth on this - given their past records possibly neither.

Bush is looking for a way to push the Iranians into doing something that gives him a pretext for war - Cheney even more so (see Seymour Hersh's column in the New Yorker magazine).

Cheney may well want to turn this into a Gulf of Tonkin incident if the British dont stop him.

At the same time Ahmadenijad is facing teachers and bus drivers strikes and he and Khameini's 'Supreme Leader' position are increasingly unpopular - so maybe they're both trying to create a distraction from their domestic problems.

There's also the vote on Iran's nuclear programme today of course in ths Security Council - so that could be an Iranian motive too.

Parts of the Shatt Al Arab are still disputed (i think from what i remember from Dilip Hiro's book) partly because the waterway changes constantly due to tides and river action moving sandbanks and water courses. So it could just be that both sides are mistaken.

calgacus said...

There's also the possibility that the Iranians have taken our marines and sailors hostage to try to negotiate a prisoner exchange for Iranians taken prisoner by US forces in Iraq -,,1999783,00.html

Harry Barnes said...


When Iraq was estabished under a British Mandate in 1920, it was given a highly problematic access to the sea and that only being to the Gulf. This does not justify Saddam Hussein attacking Iran then Kuwait, but there always has been a case for a renewed international settlement improving
Iraq's position in this respect. This is more difficult than ever in current circumstances.

As I looked out daily upon the Shatt-al-Arab for some 20 months of my life, I will pursue the matter further and eventually post a consider item. This link, however, contains matters of interest -

I believe that Shipping and Port facilities at Basra have declined considerably compared to what I was used to 50 years ago and that much more use is made of Umn Qasr close to the Gulf - especially since the invasion. That was certainly the overwhelming pattern I saw from the air last April.