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Coalition Forces Target Oil Smugglers

October 2, 2003

ABOARD THE HMAS NEWCASTLE (AP) _ Smugglers trying to sell Iraqi crude in the regional black market face quicker justice now that coalition ships are patrolling the Gulf waters _ and bringing Iraqi judges on board to issue rulings.

Under a confiscation order issued Aug. 31 by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the Iraqi judiciary system is free to begin the process of investigating those caught smuggling and return the wealth to Iraq.

``Oil smuggling is back. Stealing oil from Iraq is stealing the country’s future and we are doing all we can to stop this,″ said Capt. Gerry Christian, commanding officer of the Australian frigate HMAS Newcastle.

``Our job is to know who is on the waterway and why, and we are already using the Iraqi judicial process to punish, through their legal system, the people that we catch,″ Christian said.

Last month, for the first time, an Iraqi judge was escorted to vessels being held on suspicion of smuggling Iraqi oil and conducted administrative hearings on six of them.

Under the confiscation order, the U.S.-appointed provisional Iraqi government has the right to seize the vessels, Christian said. The oil on board will be transferred back to Iraq and sold lawfully. The crew would be allowed to return home if no criminal charges are filed.

The cases are being adjudicated using processes similar to U.S. counter-narcotics, immigration and customs forfeiture procedures that allow a federal agency to take property used in criminal activity, according to the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet.

At least 11 vessels of various sizes have been detained over the past few days in Iraqi territorial waters. All were identified as active oil-smuggling vessels and detained in an area monitored by a coalition vessel.

On Wednesday, reporters were transported in an inflatable boat to a rusty Iraqi-flagged tanker, Topaz, which the Newcastle crew said they had detained overnight and inspected for four hours early in the day.

``There is evidence that they had smuggled oil and there is a quantity of oil onboard,″ said Lt. Andrew Reichstein, a deputy weapons engineer who led the six-member boarding team.

The Australian Navy pointed out a high-power electric motor hooked up to an oil pump on the deck. From a distance, they were shown petrol-powered pumps stowed away in the belly of the ship.

Iraq’s reconstruction is heavily dependent on oil revenues. The country boasts the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves, but it is struggling to rehabilitate its oil facilities after years of deprivation due to U.N. sanctions and damage from war, looting and sabotage.

Oil production, which was around 2.5 million barrels a day before the war started in March, has recovered to 2 million barrels. It is expected to reach 3 million barrels next year.

Smuggling was sometimes used by ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to circumvent U.N. sanctions during his regime. The oil is believed to be obtained illicitly either directly from pipelines, from terminals and ports where oil is stored or from desert oil fields.

The judge who came to the ships last month conducted administrative hearings on six vessels in less than 48 hours.

The judge, whose name was not released, found that most of the vessels had been transporting illegal oil and agreed they should be detained, said Yeoman 2nd Class Tarek Shoukri, liaison and linguist for U.S. Destroyer Squadron 50.

He will later issue an order for the vessels to be brought into port, where the crews and oil will be offloaded and the ship will either be converted for use by the Iraqi government or sold at auction, Shoukri said.

``With the establishment of Iraqi magistrates we are raising the stakes to those who contemplate smuggling of Iraqi oil,″ said Capt. Charles Gaouette, commanding officer of the destroyer USS Fletcher, which is operating in Iraqi territorial waters with the Newcastle.

Coalition naval forces have conducted maritime interception operations in the Arabian Gulf since 1990, initially focused on enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq that were imposed after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. More recently, those intercept operations have been focused on maintaining security and curbing general lawlessness as well as stemming the flow of contraband goods, including smuggled Iraqi oil.

Coalition ships query every ship operating in Iraqi territorial waters in the North Arabian Gulf.

Over the last few weeks, naval forces have stopped several ships carrying Iraqi oil without proper authorization from the Iraqi Oil Ministry. At least 200 ships have been boarded and roughly a dozen detained.

It will be up to the future government of Iraq to determine how to deal with smugglers, but for now, coalition forces are giving the people of Iraq the ability to address the immediate crisis.

``The Iraqi judicial system is beginning a journey of due process,″ said Cmdr. Catherine Knowles of the U.S. Fifth Fleet Deputy Force Judge Advocate General. ``This is a new way of doing business. The judge went out and let the crews know there is a new game in town.″

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