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Iraq’s Would-Be Navy Stuck in Italian Riviera

October 12, 1990 GMT

ROME (AP) _ Every morning, 90 Iraqi sailors hoist the flag on their two Esmeraldas- class corvettes, rev their engines and swivel their 76-millimeter cannons menacingly along the horizon.

It is a scene that would worry the U.S. military - if it were not taking place on the sunny Italian Riviera.

The two corvettes, and eight other warships floating nearby, were ordered from Italy in 1980. They were to have formed the bulk of Iraq’s most powerful naval fleet ever.

But as Saddam Hussein’s country prepares for war, its would-be navy is stranded at an Italian military base and a nearby shipbuilder’s docks, a victim of delays and Italian government embargoes.

″It will be very difficult for these ships to ever arrive in Iraq,″ said Marco Maria Ferranti, spokesman for the Italian shipbuilder, Fincantieri.

The shipbuilding deal between Iraq and Italy is an example of the lucrative arms contracts that Baghdad reached with Western countries in the past decade.

For Italy, the $2.6 billion contract was a boon for the country’s sagging shipbuilding industry.

It called for the state-owned Fincantieri to supply Iraq with four Lupo- class frigates, each displacing about 2,500 tons and armed with short-range missiles.

The company also agreed to build two Esmeraldas-class corvettes and four Wadi-class corvettes, loaded with helicopters, missile and rocket launchers, and anti-submarine torpedos supplied by other Italian firms.

The fleet also included a support ship and a floating dock.

″It would have completely transformed the quality and capacity of their (Iraq’s) fleet,″ said Jim McCoy, a naval analyst at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.

″They would have become a force in the Persian Gulf.″

The first part of the shipbuilding deal, a support ship, headed for Iraq in 1984. But by then, Iraq was at war with Iran. The ship could not reach its base at Basra since the Shatt-al-Arab waterway was blocked. The vessel docked at Alexandria, Egypt - where it remains.

In 1986, two corvettes were formally turned over to Iraq. One hundred Iraqi sailors went to the naval base at La Spezia, 270 miles north of Rome, to train on the ships.

But later that year, Italy decided to suspend the sale of military goods to Iran and Iraq. Iraq, which had paid half the price of the ships, cut off further payments.

Fincantieri continued to build, hoping the measure was temporary. Their hopes were raised when the Iran-Iraq war ground to a halt in 1988.

Finally, in April, the Italian government announced it was prepared in principle to let the ships go to Iraq.

But Iraq decided it wanted some compensation for its long wait. According to Ferranti, Iraq demanded more helicopters, radar systems, a high-speed gunboat, shipbuilding plans and a sophisticated electronic warfare command system.

The Italian government began to get cold feet. In May, Italian police seized nearly 100 tons of steel parts on suspicions they were destined for an alleged Iraqi ″supergun.″ Italy then refused to let the two Iraqi corvettes go home.

″The position of Saddam Hussein certainly wasn’t reassuring,″ said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alessandro Di Franco.

In the meantime, Iran, worried about its gulf rival, summoned the Italian ambassador to protest any turnover of the ships to Iraq.

Negotiations on Iraq’s demands were stalled by the time it invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2. Italy has since observed a U.N. boycott on trade with Iraq, leaving the ships stuck once again.

Don Kerr, another analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, says the ships could have been useful now to Iraq - ″at the very least like a security blanket.″ However, they would have been no match for the multinational force now in the gulf.

What will happen to Iraq’s would-be navy?

The ships may be sold to someone else, Ferranti said. However, such a sale would mean breaking a legal contract with Iraq and paying it back.

″These aren’t packets of nuts. They are warships,″ said Di Franco. ″It’s a delicate thing.″

Fincantieri is losing millions of dollars a year maintaining the ships it can’t deliver, Ferranti said.

Meanwhile, every day, the 90 Iraqis go through their paces on their corvettes, running fire drills, swiveling the anti-aircraft missile ramps and aiming the cannons at imaginary enemies, officials said. The arms have no ammunition, they said.

The Italian military keeps an eye on the Iraqis but there are no restrictions on their movements, said Cmdr. Aldo de Franceschi, the chief of staff for the Tirrenia region.

″I think they’re very satisfied to be here,″ he said. ″Here they are better off. Above all, they are at peace.″