On board, Australian Navy lieutenant commander Tish Van Stralen, a maritime lawyer, said that the cruiser was the flagship of an eight-ship coalition task force guarding Iraq's nearby Al Basrah and Khawr Al Amaya oil terminals, which were pumping up to 1.6 million barrels a day into the holds of supertankers. "They provide up to 90 percent of Iraq's GDP, and so the coalition forces have set up a pair of adjacent two-mile-wide exclusion zones around the oil terminals," Van Stralen said. "We challenge and check every vessel wanting to enter them, primarily on the watch for terrorists intent on blowing up the oil terminals, but also for pirates and smugglers."
The pirate hunters patrolling the zones were a Coast Guard crew aboard the cutter Aquidneck. The next morning I rode a half hour across a flat sea in a rigid inflatable speedboat to meet them.
Lt. Jonathan Carter and his 22-man crew had spent six months on these volatile waters. Assault rifles were nestled in a rack, and on the small bridge, four sailors hunched over radar and sonar equipment, looking for any vessel trying to enter the exclusion zones.
As the Aquidneck edged up the Shatt Al Arab waterway toward Basra, Carter pointed to an empty stretch of desert about 200 yards on our left. "That's Kuwait," he said. About 200 yards to the right was Iraq—more desert with no sign of life. The cutter passed several rusting hulks resting half out of the water, casualties of Gulf warfare.
"Pirates have been active in these waterways for centuries. There're still plenty of them here, and we call them Ali Baba," Carter went on. "They mostly prey on the fishing dhows, especially during the prawning season when the dhow captains carry plenty of money on board after selling their catch to traders....We'll hear a plea over the radio, 'Ali Baba! Ali Baba!' But by the time we reach the dhow, the pirates have usually escaped. If we surprise them, they throw their weapons overboard."
Coalition naval forces are trying to train Iraqi marines to board, search and, if necessary, seize suspicious vessels. From the north, I saw two patrol boats roaring along the waterway toward us. On board were Iraqi marines under the guidance of a pair of Royal Australian Navy officers. The marines were taking part in a training exercise, and five Coast Guardsmen and I volunteered to play potential terrorists or pirates.
Several grim-faced Iraqi marines clad in camouflage fatigues climbed aboard and forced us up to the front of the Aquidneck. Some pointed their guns at us even though their trainers had ordered them not to, and others searched us and checked our ID. I grimaced when a marine yanked my arms above my head and I tensed as he roughly searched my body for hidden weapons.
They made us sit on the uncovered deck in brutal heat for more than an hour, refusing our requests for water and keeping their guns trained on us. But for all that, our captors failed to detect a knife one of the Aquidneck crew had secreted, and they never searched my camera bag. Had we been actual bad guys, who knows what might have happened.
Last October I drove an hour north of Mombasa, past a string of Kenyan luxury seaside resorts, to talk to any of the ten accused Somali pirates who would speak with me in the maximum-security jail where they were being held. As I waited outside the stone walls, grim-faced prisoners in striped pajamas with short pants came and went, under guard.
By then, the Somalis' trial was under way; the defendants were due in court the following day. Inside the jail, armed guards escorted two of them as they shuffled toward me, handcuffed to each other.