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A Dangerous Delivery of Aid

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Aboard RFA Sir Galahad, first humanitarian aid ship to dock in Iraq.
The 50-mile-long waterway leading from the Persian Gulf to Iraq’s only deep-water port at Um Qasr will never be on any cruise itinerary. It winds through low, desolate desert flats and is littered with the rusting, half-sunken hulks of luckless ships that have ventured here before. The channel has one other distinguishing feature-it has been mined by the Iraqis over three wars and no amount of mine sweeping can find them all.
Yet the coalition was determined to begin the delivery of humanitarian aid to Iraq-and just as importantly, was determined to be seen to be delivering that aid. A small pool of reporters was helicoptered out to the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Sir Galahad, which was loaded with 650 tons of basic foodstuffs and bottled water. The following morning it would be our job to witness and report on this foray into Iraq’s heart of darkness.
The coalition was taking no chances. A British mine sweeper, HMS Sandown, would lead the convoy, hopefully clearing the way. An American patrol boat, USS Firebolt, would tuck in behind, riding shotgun. Attack helicopters would provide cover from the air. The Sir Galahad would make the trip at full battle stations, guns manned, anti-flash hoods and gloves worn against the prospect of explosions, and the whole ship buttoned up and pressurized in case it came under chemical weapons attack.
The channel, dangerous enough in open water, also runs close in along the Iraqi shore-perhaps two hundred yards off-through an area of the Faw peninsula not yet under full coalition control and whose creeks were thought to harbor some of the fast Iraqi patrol boats that had not yet been accounted for. Intelligence reports warned these boats might be loaded with explosives and manned by suicide crews. The Sir Galahad would be at it most vulnerable as it crept up the twisting reaches of the narrowing channel. And that’s where it happened.
“Fast-moving contact at 5,000 meters!” Capt. Roger Robinson Brown barked. “Clear weapons for fire.” Someone had spotted something that should not be there. A fast-moving small boat just visible through binoculars was approaching from ahead. Just the sort of danger that was feared most. “It is assumed unfriendly,” the captain announced.
Bolts were pulled and rounds chambered in machine guns mounted all over the ship. The Firebolt pulled out of formation, out from behind the minesweeper’s protection, and raced ahead at full throttle to confront the intruder. Visibility was good and the entire bridge froze as eyes were stuck into binoculars trained on the closing distance between the Firebolt and the unknown boat. Five hundred yards. Four hundred. Three. Two. No one spoke.
Finally, the radio crackled. The Firebolt reported the approaching speedboat was off an American destroyer somewhere up ahead. Its small crew manned a machine gun mounted in the bow. It had come to help but it wasn’t part of the plan. “That was foolhardy,” the captain said. “If visibility had been worse we would have had no choice but to destroy it before we could identify it.”
Capt. Robinson Brown reached for the radio and issued an order to the entire fleet. “In future I do not want any boats to approach unless I have been previously informed.” He had just been seconds away from ordering the deaths of friendly forces and he was not happy.
The Sir Galahad docked at the decrepit old port of Um Qasr and under heavy guard immediately began unloading. Others would now worry about where the aid went but the intended point had been made. The carrot part of the coalition’s stick-and-carrot approach to Iraq could begin. Um Qasr had been shown to be open for business even if it took a convoy bristling with guns and a near friendly-fire incident to prove it.
We thanked the captain for his hospitality as we stepped ashore and commended him for his skill and cool. “Have a good war,” he said, and turned back to his ship.