When planners for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) began their studies of how to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein, they looked to the 1991 Gulf War for a number of critical lessons learned. One that just jumped from the history of Operation Desert Storm (ODS) was the need to secure Iraq’s oil and gas fields, along with the critical processing and transportation infrastructure for those products. The consequences of not doing so were both clear and devastating. During ODS, Saddam ordered the Persian Gulf flooded with crude oil to wreck the ecology, along with fouling water purification plants and fishing grounds. He also ordered all of the oil wellheads in Kuwait blown off, leaving the country a nightmare akin to Dante’s Inferno.
With these precedents in mind, OIF planners began to look at seizing the Iraqi petrochemical infrastructure before it could be destroyed as part of a “scorched earth” policy by Saddam. Along with preventing a possible ecological catastrophe, there was also a more practical reason for making it a priority one mission: oil revenues. America and its allies viewed Iraq’s oil reserves as the property of the Iraqi people, to be used to rebuild a country ravaged by a generation of despotism by Saddam, his family, and followers.
By September 2002, OIF planners were working on an operational concept that would result in one of the largest SOF operations in history. It also would be one of the most diverse SOF expeditions ever conducted, involving forces from the United States, Great Britain, Kuwait, and Poland. The objectives would include securing the Al Faw Peninsula, the port of Umm Qasr, and Iraq’s southern oilfields and production facilities. The allied operation was designed to also secure the offshore islands and waterways to the port, clearing them of mines and obstructions as quickly as possible. Key to the operation’s success, though, was the simultaneous securing of two major offshore oil terminals called gas and oil platforms (GOPLATs) as well as the main refinery terminal and two pumping stations on the Al Faw peninsula.
Securing the GOPLATs and the land-based facilities on the Al Faw Peninsula would be a key OIF objective from the start. The story of how it was done, and that of the joint, multi-national SOF force that made it a success, is one of the finest moments in Naval Special Warfare (NSW) history.
The Challenge — The Plan
SOF operations are, by their nature, both difficult and dangerous. Add complexity, multiple land and sea-based objectives, a ready foe, and the need to synchronize events with to-the-second precision, and you have a possible prescription for disaster. Nevertheless, that is exactly what faced Capt. Bob Harward and his NSW team when they began planning the takedown of the hub of Iraq’s gas and oil infrastructure. The challenge was that the two sea-based gas and oil platforms had to be taken at the exact same time that the land-based refinery and its two main pumping stations were being secured. Any delay or misstep, and the Iraqi defenders might blow up a crucial manifold or pipe, causing an ecological disaster.
The GOPLATs themselves were difficult targets, and quite crucial to Iraq’s postwar future. Something like 90 percent of Iraq’s oil is exported through the two GOPLATs, first to Platform 1 (Mina al Bakr) and then fed over to Platform 2 (Khawr al Amaya). The pipes from the land-based pumping stations reach approximately 10 miles out to the platforms. Between the two platforms lay 12 miles of pipeline – two pipes, each 6 feet in diameter. The platforms are similar to a large gas station where supertankers pull up and fill their tanks. Both GOPLATs are huge, each more than 1,000 meters (about .61 statute miles) long. Mina Al Bakr alone is capable of filling four tankers the size of the Exxon Valdez at one time.