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. Reborn Iraqi navy heads back out to sea
With the Iraqi flag hoisted, one of only five small patrol boats that make up the entire flotilla of Iraq's reborn navy, has begun venturing into Gulf waters.

But it will be a while before the Devil and her four sisters -- one of them disabled after a run-in with a dhow -- are taken seriously, if ever.

Since the navy was smashed in the March 2003 US-led invasion, British forces deployed in southern Iraq -- home to the ports of Basra and Umm Qasr -- have been trying to resurrect it with US assistance.

A 25-strong team of Royal Navy instructors is stationed in Umm Qasr to train Iraqi crews.

Lieutenant Wared al-Mohamdawy is commander of the Devil and has been putting out to sea for a few weeks now.

His mission is to support "Task Force 58," the coalition flotilla protecting the Gulf oil terminals of Basra and Khor Al-Amaya.

Gazing toward the horizon, this Shiite Muslim from the southern town of Amara who served in the old Iraqi navy, awaits orders from the USS Chosin cruiser currently commanding the group.

The navy's Chinese-made boats, ordered in 2002, are 20 meters (66 feet) long and equipped with two machine guns, one Polish and the other Russian.

The Devil, the Shark, the South Star and the Tiger sail one after the other south from Umm Qasr to join the USS Chosin, staying overnight on the open northern Gulf sea before returning to port the following day.

It may seem very little, but it is a lot by regional standards.

The Iraqi Navy is "the most operational force in the Gulf," said US Navy Captain Hank Miranda, commander of the naval group protecting the Iraqi oil terminals.

"The Iraqi Navy, with their four small boats, go out and patrol every day," he told AFP.

The US Navy is helping train the Iraqis by testing officers for command of a patrol boat.

Rubber dinghies from the Chosin simulate incursions into an exclusion zone enforced around the terminals, defying candidates to stop them.

A total of 20 officers have passed the test in the past six months, including seven out of seven on October 4. It was not all smooth sailing though -- the first candidate initially failed after becoming seasick.

There is no doubt the Iraqi sailors still have a long way to go.

Indeed, when asked when he thinks they will be able to guard the oil terminals on their own, Miranda smiles and replies: "Some time in the future" -- in other words, probably never.

"It's more than just having the forces. It's about logistics. It's so much more complex than putting one person to guard a post," he said.

Keeping a ship at sea is indeed too complex a task for a country like Iraq which currently has neither the resources nor the know-how to do it.

"They cannot even pay their own sailors. They cannot bring fuel to their ships," Miranda said.

The navy "are the last people on the food chain of the Iraqi government," he added.

For the moment, the 650-odd Iraqi sailors, nearly all Shiites from Basra, can only dream.

"We need two like that one," sighed Lieutenant Mithaq al-Siraih, standing on the deck of his boat, the Shark, while looking with envy at the Chosin.

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