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Iraq: Gulf Spill Highlights Risks Of Oil Smuggling

  • Charles Recknagel

An oil spill this week from a boat smuggling Iraqi oil that sank off the coast of Dubai has called new attention to the environmental hazards posed by sanctions-busting in the Gulf. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the accident and the illegal trade.

Prague, 20 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It is still not clear exactly what caused the Georgia-flagged boat, the Zainab, to sink on 14 April after it was detained at sea by the U.S.-led fleet enforcing sanctions on Iraq.

The ship had been caught in international waters by the Multinational Interception Force, or MIF, with a load of some 1,300 tons of fuel oil that it was smuggling out of Iraq and down the Gulf.

But as the MIF escorted the Zainab to a holding area at sea until a host nation could be found to take it in, the boat went down, releasing a reported 300 tons of oil toward the northern coast of the United Arab Emirates, or UAE.

The oil spill set off an emergency clean-up operation in Dubai, where some 5,000 bags of oil-soaked sand were collected -- qualifying the crisis as one the emirate's worst in years.

Habiba Sultan Al-Marashi, the head of the nongovernmental Emirates Environmental Group, told our correspondent by telephone from Dubai that the oil spill put Dubai and the other emirates on an emergency footing.

"Dubai municipality mobilized around 300 to 400 staff working continuously around the clock but in shifts. The other emirates were on standby and alert, their coast guards and everybody, but [in the end] it was not necessary. The [damage] is very much under control and it is much less than what was anticipated."

The emirate of Sharjah temporarily shut down a desalination pump as a precautionary measure after the spill neared pumping stations there.

Al Marashi said that the challenge now is to resurface the boat to remove any danger that the hundreds of tons of oil remaining inside will yet spill out.

"The divers went down and sealed the area where [the sunken boat's hull] was leaking, so that has already been taken care of. Maybe the problem that will face them is how to bring that thing up and how to get that oil from inside safely out to another carrier without spilling."

No operation to surface the boat has yet been announced.

The Zainab's oil spill is the first time a boat smuggling Iraqi oil down the Gulf has sunk while being escorted by the MIF. But for many in the region it was an accident waiting to happen.

MIF officials have described the Zainab as typical of the dozens of small, barely seaworthy boats that smugglers use to transport Iraqi oil down the Gulf at minimum financial risk. The boats are often 30 years old and are used to carry 1,000 to 1,500 tons of oil -- usually semi-refined products but also gasoline and diesel -- until they are caught or fall apart.

Most of the boats reportedly try to evade the MIF by sailing down the Gulf in Iranian territorial waters before making fast runs for Gulf state ports or sailing for East Africa and India. Last year alone, the MIF seized more than 80 boats with smuggled fuel and, so far this year, another 19.

The British navy, which participates in the 18-nation MIF, says that the volume of Iraqi oil being smuggled down the Gulf varies with world oil prices. Last year, as benchmark oil prices soared close to $30 a barrel, British officials estimated the volume for July at 400,000 tons. This year benchmark prices are below $25 a barrel and officials say the volume in February dropped to 50,000 tons.

That drop in volume is good news for Gulf residents who worry about the possibility that more boats like the Zainab will sink, or that offshore barges used by smugglers to collect oil from the boats will do the same.

Dubai residents still recall a major oil spill three years ago when a barge suspected of carrying Iraqi diesel sunk off the UAE, spilling more than 4,000 tons of the fuel into Gulf waters. The oil slick caused substantial environmental damage and forced some of the UAE shiekhdoms to temporarily shut down their desalination plants, which provide the bulk of their drinking water.

The risks of oil spills from the smuggling operation only add to what environmentalists say are already significant levels of pollution in the Gulf due to leakages from oil terminals and pipelines.

The Kuwait-based Regional Organization for the Protection of the Maritime Environment estimates that up to 30,000 barrels of crude are leaked into the Gulf every day from offshore rigs and from tankers during loading operations.

Many residents are particularly angered by commercial oil tankers routinely cleaning their tanks and flushing out waste oil as they enter the Gulf en route to loading stations. That operation, which commercial tankers deny, is usually carried out under cover of darkness.

The ecological danger of oil pollution in the Gulf is especially acute because it is a shallow, almost landlocked body of water that connects to the ocean only through the narrow Strait of Hormuz.