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Ghosts Of The Sea:
Curses On Anniversary Of Basra Ship’s Sinking

Special Correspondent
Survivors of a naval collision recount the horrors of being trapped below decks when their vessel was hit by a tanker.

It is over two years since the sinking of the service ship, Al Misbar, after a collision with a tanker, the Royal Arsenal, near Basra. Twenty-one people were killed in the incident and even today, it still haunts those who were involved.

The Al Misbar was bringing port employees from an offshore oil terminal to Basra’s Umm Qasr port when it failed to see the huge tanker bearing down on it. Despite evasive action being taken, the tanker’s prow holed the other boat, which began to sink. A Navy rescue boat was despatched from the port and managed to pick up some of the 23 crew and eight passengers on board, within ten minutes of the sinking.

Even as she was sinking, the bow of the Al Misbar had remained suspended and just as the rescuers were leaving, they heard a knocking on the hull; they realized somebody must still be trapped inside. After cutting a hole in the side of the boat, they managed to extract Ali Abdul-Kareem, the ship’s engineer.

“I went below to get something while the captain and the crew were eating their dinner near the wheelhouse,” Abdul-Kareem says today. “I was so lucky to survive. When I realized the boat was sinking I moved to the parts that seemed to be remaining afloat. I am so lucky to be alive.

Jawad Kathem, a captain and the harbour pilot who was on board the Royal Arsenal that fateful night, said that the accident happened because of the route taken by the Al Misbar. Kathem says that by naval law, the smaller ship should have changed course because it is far easier and faster for smaller vessels to do this than the huge tankers. However, despite repeated calls on the radio, the Al Misbar never changed course and the Royal Arsenal was unable to do so fast enough to avoid the collision.

The Royal Arsenal was held in Basra for investigation for over a year and its crew was also detained. Eventually though, it was released, after much criticism from the ship’s owners about a lack of transparency and the unseaworthiness of the Al Misbar. The Royal Arsenal was found to bear around three-quarters of the fault for the accident, even though it was the Al Misbar that should have changed course, critics of the judgment said.

Basra locals believe that those on the Al Misbar who drowned are still haunting the seas. When the Royal Arsenal finally left Iraqi waters, it hit another tanker in the nearby Strait of Hormuz and started a fire.

But Kathem, a long time seafarer, has a different theory: “That is just fate on the high seas,” he suggests. “And nobody can prevent it.”