IN IRAQI TERRITORIAL WATERS—Bobbing cork-like on white-cap seas, two small, rubber power boats idle in the northernmost Persian Gulf. It's 2 a.m. and the U.S. Coast Guard is stalking its target in an international game of tag.
The squad lingers in hopes of nabbing smugglers aboard dozens of creaking wooden ships backed into Iraq's Khawer Abd Allah waterway. Overhead, American helicopters circle, using all manner of electronics to survey the shipping bottleneck for anything bigger than a dolphin.
Growing numbers of American-led military ships in the gulf have been increasingly successful at stopping smuggling in and out of Iraq.
In 1995 the United Nations eased an embargo on Iraq and adopted an oil-for-food deal to ease conditions for ordinary Iraqis without financing Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. The rules allow certified shipments of oil to come out and U.N.-sanctioned deliveries of food and medicine to go in.
Still, smugglers seek profit in moving more than the United Nations allows. Sometimes grain is spread across the tops of ships to conceal oil in tanks below. Iraq's famous dates are as popular as oil, and a dhow full of contraband dates fetches twice the price of crude.
On a recent night, tiny boats leave the guided missile destroyer USS Milius on an anti-smuggling mission. Aboard the Milius, a real-time view of the scene is piped into a control room from night vision cameras aboard aircraft.
Capt. Peter Jones, an Australian officer, serves aboard the Milius to direct the anti-smuggling patrols running off Australian, American, British and Polish vessels.
A Coast Guard unit working from the Milius jokes casually about what they might encounter this windy night. Will a single boat dash for the open gulf? Will the small dhows—traditional wooden boats used for various purposes in this region of the world—rush all at once so a few can slink through?
"Usually, we stop one or two and the others just turn around," said the lieutenant junior grade in charge. (His first name is Kerry, but because the team usually prowls the waters around Central and South America hunting drug traffickers, its members like to keep their full names out of newspapers.) "We'll have to see what happens tonight."
This night, the Americans are essentially bluffing. The seas are so rocky that boarding a larger dhow from rubber boats is a tricky proposition.
The USS Peterson lost two sailors in 2001 when a dilapidated cargo ship they had boarded during the day sank in a storm after nightfall.
In 2001, 2,570 ships in the gulf were diverted when their cargoes were deemed illegal. In 2002, nearly 900 were seized or forced to reverse course.
For much of the 1990s, smugglers cruised from Iraq into the territorial waters of Iran. That ended in 2000 when Tehran took a more aggressive tack toward smugglers.
"The volume of ships we have here makes its harder to get through," said Navy Capt. Mark Balmert, who oversees Jones' operation and other ships from aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation.
Large ships busted with smuggled cargo are rounded up in a holding area in the gulf. Their seized booty goes to the United Nations. The captured vessels, typically rusty and leaking, are destined for scrap.
The much smaller dhows, anywhere from 15 to 80 feet long, are usually just turned around.
On this night, reports suggest that several dozen dhows are poised to charge into the gulf. There's word, too, of nearby Iraqi Navy patrol boats. Dhow captains often claim threats of attack from those patrols if they return to Iraq.
At one point, the Coast Guard unit stares into the light of the bow of a ship. As the rubber boats circle the larger craft, it turns to keep its nose pointed at them.
"Unless I see it from the side I can't tell if it's a dhow or a patrol boat," said the young lieutenant junior grade. "If it's a patrol boat they've got us outgunned."
Finally, one of the rubber boats gets a side look. It's just a harmless rusty tugboat.
Later, with the seas calmed, the crews power up to a dhow headed toward Iraq.
"What is your cargo?" the officer yells up to an Indian dhow captain. "Where did you come from?"
The Coast Guard crew hooks a ladder to the side of his ship and climbs up to the deck, pistols drawn, yelling for the merchant sailors to put up their hands.
A quick search uncovers a stash of fan belts, matches, wallets, and light fixtures—harmless consumer goods. But they come without the U.N. letter that's needed for anything shipped into Iraq. The dhow is told to head back home to the United Arab Emirates.
Meantime, one rubber boat's engine has overheated. It must be towed by the other back to the Milius.
"Well, we're done for tonight," said the Coast Guard officer. "But we'll be back."
(Canon reports for the Kansas City Star.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): iraq+smuggling