BAGHDAD, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- The fledgling new-era Iraqi navy has taken delivery of the second of four patrol vessels ordered from Italy to protect its offshore oil terminals in the gulf.
At the same time, Iraq's parliament Tuesday approved the return of 100 British naval instructors who were forced to leave the country several months ago.
They left when British forces withdrew from their sector in the south, which includes Iraq's narrow coastal strip, because no provision had been made for them to stay. Exactly when they will return has not yet been determined.
But even when they do, Iraq's nascent armed forces, shouldering increasing responsibility for security as U.S. forces withdraw under a December 2008 agreement, face possible budgetary cutbacks that could impede their growth and capabilities.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has approved a $67 billion draft budget for 2010 that is significantly below what officials have said is required.
The shortfall is largely due to lower oil prices. Oil income makes up 90 percent of the country's revenue.
On Oct. 7, Maliki, with one eye on parliamentary elections in January, proposed that next year's budget should prioritize reconstruction over security.
He noted that 74 percent of the $58 billion budget for 2009 went on Iraq's 640,000-strong security forces in operations, materiel and salaries.
It was not clear whether the expected reduction in security spending would affect the delivery of the final two patrol vessels being built by Fincantieri of Italy at their shipyards in La Spezia and Riva Trigoso.
The first of the Saettia Mark 4-class patrol ships, with a design based on the Diciotti-class vessels in service with the Italian navy, was delivered in May.
The second was handed over to the Iraqis in La Spezia on Oct. 9 and is currently en route to the Gulf. The last is expected to be delivered in early 2010.
The 160-foot ships carry 38-man crews and have a top speed of 23 knots.
The contract with Fincantieri was signed in February 2006 and was worth $118 million.
The patrol ships will form the core of the 2,000-man Iraqi navy, which also operates 26 Predator-class patrol boats and 10 fast-attack craft.
These patrol Iraq's Exclusive Economic Zone in the northern waters of the Gulf to guard the country's southern maritime oil export route and two major terminal platforms 50 miles off the port of Umm Qasr.
These oil routes, along with overland pipelines running north to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, are the country's economic jugular and constitute a strategic asset.
Training for a wide range of missions, including traffic control, salvage and fire-fighting, will commence once the British Royal Navy instructors return under the British-led Coalition Naval Advisory and Training Program.