Navy chief's praise for Iraqi forces

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A NAVAL officer who faced rocket fire in Baghdad says he has seen progress in the region after returning to the Arabian Gulf.

Andrew Burns, commanding officer of the frigate HMS Somerset, faced heavy fire when he worked in Iraq in 2004 flying from camps to embassies in Black Hawk helicopters.

But the 41-year-old, who lives near Emsworth, says the security situation is much improved and that the Iraqi Navy is working well to defend its coastline and two valuable oil platforms.

Commander Burns has just returned from a five-month patrol of Iraqi waters with Somerset, which combined anti-piracy work with 200 ship boardings aimed at improving maritime security.

He said: 'We have worked extremely hard across the deployment to help provide reassurance to the people using the Arabian Gulf.

'We have patrolled around Iraq's most valuable oil platform and have visited several countries in the region to improve relations with Britain.'

The Type 23 frigate travelled through the Suez Canal in the summer and was on high alert for pirates raiding off the coast of Somalia.

The ship provided cover as she travelled east for the tankers transporting fuel and goods from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.

Somerset then moved north into the Arabian Gulf where she carried out ship visits to promote peaceful trade.

Her key role though was protecting the Al Basrah Oil Terminal 12 miles off the coast of Iraq, which is the country's biggest source of income.

Oil terminals provide around 80 per cent of Iraq's Gross Domestic Product by enabling super-tankers to collect oil transported by pipeline from inland fields.

Cdr Burns said: 'We have an important role to play defending it, though the Iraqis are getting close to the stage where they can carry out that role for themselves.

'It's encouraging to see Iraq's development from 2004.

'At that point the security situation was not great, but you've now got Iraq exporting its oil which is great for its prosperity.'