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Coast Guard cutter hunting for Iraq's fleeing leaders

ABOARD U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER DALLAS—When captain Chris Colvin opens his charts and ponders the coastline of Syria, he's looking at roughly 100 miles of possibility for fleeing leaders of the Iraqi regime.

A freighter with fugitives aboard could leave from any of several ports. A small launch could whiz out from just about anywhere

For now, it's mostly up to Colvin and the 170 crew members of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas—what could well be one of the scrappiest ships in the war—to make sure that Iraqi leaders don't get through.

Several ships from the Arabian Gulf are being redeployed to the eastern Mediterranean to help out, but the Dallas is what Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem calls the "lead dog," sniffing around any ships that move through.

He said one likely scenario is that fugitives would come overland to Syria, and then try to escape across the Mediterranean, perhaps to northern Africa.

"We know in the past that they have used that gateway," said Stufflebeem. "Syria is denying this but there have been people going into Syria and we know that. Whether they stay or whether they decide to go, we're going to work this part of the water hard to make sure that if they do go, we catch them."

So while troops in Iraq are being given photo cards to help identify the most-wanted Iraqi regime members, the crew of the Dallas is keeping tabs on the sea, calling ships on a radio hailing channel to ask where they are from, where they are going and who and what they have aboard.

It's not a sure thing that the ship's crews will tell the truth, but discrepancies or abnormalities might become apparent.

"We're just nosy and curious about everyone in the area," Colvin said.

A helicopter crew from Group Air Station-Atlantic City, N.J., flies watchdog missions from the Dallas daily, checking out ships and photographing them.

"Anything that's floating, we'll go take a look at it," said Lt. J.G. Kyle S. Armstrong, 32, one of the pilots.

So far, said another pilot, Lt. Cmdr, Bob Makowsky, 43, of Naugatuck, Conn., they've seen a lot of Syrian freighters and Turkish fishing boats.

"We certainly haven't seen any cruise ships," said Colvin.

They report everything to intelligence staff members, who could then ask the Dallas to send over a boarding crew. This is her expertise, Stufflebeem said.

"That's what the Coast Guard does: law enforcement. This is their bailiwick, going aboard and looking, inspecting, if necessary arresting."

As of Friday, the Dallas crew had not yet boarded another vessel.

If the aircraft carriers are the grand dames of the fleet, shouldering their way across the sea, the 378-foot Dallas—named for Alexander J. Dallas, secretary of the Treasury under James Madison—is roughly akin to the Little Engine That Could, darting about to fill in where needed.

More than 30 years old and showing it, springing minor leaks almost daily, the ship started this war by providing protection for ships in the strait of Gibraltar. Next it ran interference in the central Mediterranean for ships moving the 4th Infantry Division to the Suez Canal. Then it headed to the eastern Mediterranean, where in the first days of the war it helped protect the aircraft carriers.

Versatility is what the Dallas is about. In the Vietnam War it ran naval gunfire support missions, firing on enemy supply routes. In 1980, the Dallas was the command ship for the Mariel boatlift of Cuban refugees, which the Coast Guard says was its largest humanitarian operation ever.

The crew made hundreds of ship boardings as part of homeland security after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.

Having a part to play in Operation Iraqi Freedom is a point of pride among the crew.

"We're getting to do things and see things that no one in the Coast Guard has ever seen," said Storekeeper Nicole Alameda, 21, of Atlanta.

Seeing a Coast Guard cutter in the Mediterranean, it turns out, is not all that unusual. The first time one was here was in 1801, when Coast Guard ships came to fight the Barbary pirates. That's what the ship's executive officer, Cmdr. Karl J. Gabrielsen, who grew up in Audubon, Pa., tells his young children: Daddy is off fighting pirates. That's something they can understand.

Chief Gunners Mate Jonathan Graves, 37, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., said that in the past, if the Dallas were on patrol in the Caribbean and a small boat approached, "it was likely someone on vacation who wanted a closer look."

They know the stakes are higher now.

But Colvin said that if Iraqi leaders try to escape past the Dallas, he would "be delighted" to catch them.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): cutter+dallas