The commander of U.S. and allied naval forces in the Middle East says the increased coalition naval presence in the Persian Gulf in recent years has prevented the waterway from being used by drug traffickers and terrorists. Vice-Admiral David Nichols spoke on a video link from his headquarters in Bahrain to reporters at the Pentagon.
Admiral Nichols says one of the main missions of the 45 ships under his command inside and just outside the Persian Gulf is to deny access to the area to terrorists. He says the effort appears to be succeeding.
"Based on what we have learned over the last year-and-a-half to two years, we don't think that the maritime environment is routinely being used to move terrorists or terrorist-related equipment around the region. Intel [intelligence reports] indicates that the smugglers and the terrorists know that we're out there, paying close attention. So it seems that the deterrent effect that is the primary effect we're trying to have is occurring," he explained.
Admiral Nichols says one indication of reduced insurgent activity in the area is that there have been no attempts to attack oil platforms in the Persian Gulf since April of last year.
Admiral Nichols' force is mainly American, but also includes ships from Britain, France, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan and the coalition's newest member, Pakistan. Forces from Canada, the Netherlands and Singapore are expected to join the effort soon.
In addition to improving maritime security in the Gulf and nearby areas of the Indian Ocean, Admiral Nichols' command is training the Iraqi navy. He says that by November, the Iraqi sailors and marines will provide all the security for the country's oil platforms. The admiral says there is much work still to do to build up Iraq's navy, and provide it with the ability to sustain itself, but he says Iraqi naval leaders have set the right goals for their force.
"I think they've got their requirements in the right quadrant," he added. "They know that they need things like small patrol boats that give them the ability to enforce sovereignty inside their territorial waters, and in the waterways Shatt al-Arab and Khor Abd Allah, which are a key to the re-establishment of legitimate commercial activity in southern Iraq."
Admiral Nichols' force also provides naval air power as part of the coalition effort in Iraq. And this month the force is getting some additional capability, its first unmanned aircraft, which it plans to use to improve its reconnaissance efforts.
Meanwhile, at the admiral's headquarters in Bahrain, officers continue to serve without being able to have their families there with them. The families were evacuated more than a year ago, and Admiral Nichols says while the security situation has improved, U.S. officials are waiting until after the Iraqi constitutional referendum next month and the national elections in January before deciding whether the region is stable enough for the families to return.