Balad Air Base is an Army logistician's dream㬆 square miles of perfectly flat, hard-baked clay with two 2-1/2-mile runways. Forty hardened aircraft bunkers dot the base, built by Yugoslav contractors in the 1980s. Retreating Iraqi forces land-mined the base mosque and other buildings a year ago; otherwise, there are few signs that Saddam Hussein once operated an air force out of here.
Americana is now the dominant décor, from round-the-clock cargo arrivals via Air Force Sherpas, C-5s, and C-130s to the endless sea of olive tents, the pasta-and-pizza chow lines, and bus-stop benches colorfully painted in Stars & Stripes or Twin Towers motifs.
When U.S. officials hand control of Iraq back to Iraqis on June 30, it's hard to imagine it will make much difference at Balad, now known as Camp Anaconda, the largest coalition staging area outside Baghdad. Every day the base takes on more the air of a permanent U.S. installation.
The Pentagon is spending $30 million to set up a full-fledged hospital (thanks to Saddam Hussein assets frozen in U.S. bank accounts). Asphalt operators imported from Kuwait are enlarging and resurfacing parking pads to accommodate U.S. fighter aircraft. Acres of tents are giving way to smaller, climate-controlled modular housing.
At his April 13 press conference, President Bush promised that in less than 10 weeks "Iraqi sovereignty will be placed in Iraqi hands." Many Americans assume that will mean bringing the boys home. Troop reductions, however, are far from the minds of military strategists and policymakers.
Pentagon planners have quietly named Anaconda-along with 13 other posts in Iraq-"enduring presence" bases. That means the Defense Department expects them to be in service for at least two more years, if not longer. Defense operators are fortifying and expanding those bases to house around 140,000 troops. According to a status report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released late last month, the United States plans to keep in excess of 100,000 troops in Iraq "through at least early 2006."
At Anaconda that means funding for major construction is jumping from $9 million in this first year of occupation to $44 million over the next year. Already the Pentagon has awarded contracts to build a $7 million regional post office at Anaconda, a $10 million water-treatment facility, a $12 million wastewater treatment plant, and a $16 million power plant. The goal at Anaconda will be to house more than 15,000 long-term troops and 4,000 military personnel, like airmen, on shorter-term assignments. The base will support and supply nearly all U.S. forces north of Baghdad. Located in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, it is also likely to continue to absorb hits of its own. U.S. soldiers at Balad took the first coordinated hits of the post-war insurgency when 16 soldiers were wounded in a mortar attack last July 3.
In addition to Camp Anaconda, other major military installations scheduled for permanent or semi-permanent upgrades are Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq near An Nasiriyah, Al Hillah, and the Abu Ghurayb prison complex west of Baghdad. The New York Times reported plans to make a permanent base also in the west at Ar Rutbah.
Pentagon officials have avoided confirming specific sites, even as defense contractors are advertising the construction work. Once completed, the bases will consolidate the operations now underway at more than 100 temporary U.S. bases in Iraq. They also open the way for U.S. forces to acquire strategic landing rights and force agreements with a future Iraqi government-in the heart of the Middle East as well as the center of the Gulf and trans-Caucasus oil-producing regions.
Mr. Bush has been firm about long-term military strategy but general on its shape. "Our commitment to the success and security of Iraq will not end on June 30th. On July 1st and beyond, our reconstruction assistance will continue and our military commitment will continue," he said at the press conference. What the expenditures reveal is that U.S. forces will put up curtains and stay on indefinitely.
Given this month's fighting in Fallujah, that is OK by most Iraqis. Asked in an ABC News poll whether the coalition should leave now, the majority of Iraqis said no. Only 29 percent of Sunni Arabs, 12 percent of Shiite Arabs, and 2 percent of Kurds answered yes.
"From an Iraqi perspective, while our stability and sovereignty is at stake, we need continuing U.S. military presence," said Kurdish Regional Government head Barham Salih. "We live in a bad neighborhood that is getting better. In the meantime our sovereign government cannot exist without U.S. security forces."
The United States and a new Iraqi government, he said, "have a common interest to make troop deployment as short as possible, but not to the point we give terrorists and extremists the opportunity to think they have enough power to push Americans out of Iraq."
Overall control is another matter. For Iraqis, even pro-democracy activists who favored the war, a June 30 return to Iraqi control is not soon enough. "In my own opinion the president should have given sovereignty over on the eve of liberation," said Mr. Salih, "because for 55 years Saddam Hussein has hijacked our country and terrorized us." U.S. occupation, he said, "is an awful label. It has generated resentment and played into the hands of opponents of democracy in this part of the world."
While the United States plans to relinquish civil control to the Iraqi interim government, it will continue to manage about $5 billion in development contracts and other assistance through a new U.S. embassy. That will keep Iraq's civil authority-like its nascent military-closely tied to U.S. counterparts. "Saddam's legacy is essentially a political and administrative vacuum and Iraqis have to feel their way towards a modern political system under extraordinarily difficult circumstances," concluded the CSIS report. As U.S. political and military leaders increasingly relinquish control, the success of nation-building will depend more and more on the Iraqis.