Navy vessels in Persian Gulf are veterans of anti-smuggling campaigns

ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION-Navy cruisers and destroyers in the Persian Gulf are poised for a war with Iraq, but for several years such ships have operated in the waters off the Arabian Peninsula to counter efforts to smuggle prohibited goods in and out of the country.

United Nation sanctions have sharply restricted Iraq on what it can export, particularly oil, and also what it can import. On average, the United States conducts about 10 on-board inspections per day on ships arriving in Iraq and leaving from the country.

Capt. Mark Balmert, commodore of the aircraft carrier Constellation's Destroyer Squadron 7, oversees two cruisers, three destroyers and a frigate that have regularly been involved in anti-smuggling efforts. About a half dozen ships seek to dock at Iraqi ports in the Gulf every day, according to Balmert. If the ships are carrying cargo approved by the United Nations, and have the documents to prove it, they are allowed to dock. Cargo ships with empty containers are also allowed entry to Iraqi waterways. Only occasionally are inbound ships found to contain prohibited cargo and turned away, Balmert said.

As for outgoing ships, Balmert said, oil smuggling is the biggest concern. Supertankers usually do not carry illegal oil because they can be monitored as they fill up at oil terminals. So oil smugglers have increasingly turned to smaller vessels called dhows, which look like Chinese junks, to slip past naval ships. When such ships are intercepted, they usually are turned back to Iraq and forced to give up their oil.

Recently, older ships, no longer seaworthy, have been caught trying to take oil out of Iraq. Those ships are too unsafe to turn back to Iraq with oil loads, so tankers will usually come and take the oil, which is then turned over to the U.N.

Balmert said Navy forces rarely encounter resistance or weapons when they intercept the ships, even when they conduct onboard inspections.

"They'd lose huge if they did that," he says.

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