Kathrine Schmidt Reports: Iraqi sailors will train in Morgan City

For immediate release: Apr 6, 2010
HOUMA — Dozens of Iraqi sailors will arrive in St. Mary Parish this month to learn to operate Louisiana-built boats intended to defend oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, according to a military spokesman and a Morgan City boat-building company.

Swiftships Shipbuilders of Morgan City has been awarded a $180 million contract to build nine patrol boats to guard two crucial oil-platform terminals and a $23 million contract to train the sailors who will operate them.

It’s part of the same federal effort that awarded a contract to Gulf Island Fabrication of Houma for two oil-service ships in late March.

“We’re trying to leave Iraqis with foundational capacity to protect … oil infrastructure,” said Army Lt. Col. Glenn Burks, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in an interview from Baghdad Monday.

The ships and training are part of the ongoing effort by the U.S. government to help Iraqis to develop their own stable and efficient military since American forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. President Barack Obama has ordered the withdrawal of all combat troops by August. An agreement signed by his predecessor, President George Bush and the Iraqi government stipulates all troops are to be gone by 2011.

Iraq faces the threat of piracy near two major offshore oil-platform terminals, said retired U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Perin, who is supervising the project for Swiftships, a member of the Apex Group of Companies, a Houston-based consortium. But the country’s naval forces were largely destroyed during the first Gulf War in 1991, and today American naval forces protect those sites.

The Swift boats are part of the effort to help Iraqi defend its own offshore assets and the small sliver of coastline wedged between Kuwait and Iran. Six vessels are already under construction and the first made its maiden voyage last week.

Eighty-five percent of Iraq’s oil, the country’s biggest export, flows through one platform in the Persian Gulf, according to a Swiftships news release. “Once the Iraqi Navy has the Swiftships’ patrol boats on station with trained crews, the Iraqis will have the tools to protect the Iraqi oil platforms themselves,” the release says.

The Morgan City company has long experience with military vessels. They’re known for the aluminum patrol Swift Boats, about 150 of which were used in rivers and deltas during the Vietnam War. Swiftships’ predecessor, the Sewart Seacraft company of Berwick, adapted short-range oilfield boats for military use during the war.

Since then, the company has built both oil-and-gas industry vessels as well as handled military contracts for the United States and other countries. It also trains other foreign navies.

They’re wrapping up work training Egyptian sailors, and have also worked with the governments of Brazil, Venezuela and Kuwait.

The first 50 Iraqi trainees arrive in mid-April, Perin said, and they’ll stay for 90 days. As more groups of sailors come through, the training could continue for several years.

Lodging, native food and fluent interpreters have all been arranged, Perin said. The Iraqi sailors will be trained to operate the boats and use marine simulators that will recreate the hot, gusty conditions of the Persian Gulf.

While he says professionals like engineers and naval officers have a good understanding of the difficulty of protecting the platforms, some of the sailors may be starting from scratch. But Perin said the nascent force has the will to achieve the task.

“They want this war over with so they can go back to living their lives,” he said.

Staff Writer Kathrine Schmidt can be reached at 857-2204 or