US military winds down Iraq withdrawal

Final 8,000 troops to leave within weeks as US shutters its last four bases in Iraq.

Camp Adder, Iraq – There is almost nothing left of this sprawling military base near Nasiriyah, once a main hub for operations in southern Iraq, now reduced to more or less a fortified truck stop on the road to Kuwait.

Twelve thousand US troops were stationed here at the height of the Iraq war, with the usual complement of barracks, chow halls and other facilities. The military has dismantled most of these structures and shipped them out of the country, leaving behind kilometres of dusty lots surrounded by high concrete walls.

Camp Adder, about 320 kilometres southeast of Baghdad, is one of only four US military bases still operating in Iraq, and on Wednesday morning it was almost deserted.

The airfield was empty, save for a C-130 carrying journalists from Baghdad. Soldiers complained not about mortar fire or improvised explosive devices, but the closure of the base’s pizzeria and coffee shop last month.

“I got my T-shirt from the PX before it closed,” said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Fowler, referring to the post exchange, the on-base store, also shuttered several weeks ago. “The last one leaving Iraq, turn out the lights.”

‘That number moves fast’

Tens of millions of Iraqis are not leaving the country, of course, and for them the war is not over, not when car bombs and assassinations are a part of daily life. At least 187 civilians were killed last month in attacks, according to official figures, and the actual tally is almost certainly higher. The security situation in much of the country remains tenuous at best.

But for the US military, the war is indeed ending: There are 8,000 American troops in Iraq today, down from a high of 170,000, according to General Jeffrey Buchanan, the chief spokesman for US forces in Iraq. “And that number moves fast,” he said.

Barring some unforeseen (and unlikely) change, that number will be down to zero by December 31, save for a contingent of about 200 soldiers attached to the US embassy in Baghdad. That deadline is mandated by the US-Iraq status of forces agreement signed in 2008.

As those troops leave, so too does their equipment. Camp Adder – which the Iraqi army will rename Imam Ali Air Base – will be the last base to close, because it is the main hub for convoys travelling south to Kuwait.

Thousands of trucks have passed through here over the last 14 months, carrying everything from buildings to armoured vehicles to generators and forklifts from the 500 bases which were once dotted around Iraq.

Roughly two million pieces of equipment have been removed from the country since September 2010, officials say. Some of it is destined for Afghanistan, where the US remains embroiled in a ten-year-old war; other items will be returned to the United States, or warehoused in Kuwait.

Soldiers on Camp Adder even broke down a factory which manufactured the concrete T-walls which surround the base.

“I’ve seen some stuff come through that I didn’t know the army had,” said Lt Col Jack Vantress, the commander of the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, which secures the base.

‘The end of the mission’

The 2,000 or so troops left at Camp Adder will bring the last of their equipment south in the final convoy to leave Iraq. The military will not say exactly when, for security reasons, but troops here say they expect to hit the road in the next couple of weeks.

Until then, soldiers like Captain David Moses will be busy directing traffic. Moses, on his third deployment in Iraq, heads the “movement control team” at Camp Adder. Trucks arrive from bases further north, stop off to rest and refuel, then continue on the four-hour drive to the Kuwaiti border.

Hundreds of trucks, many driven by men from South Asia hired by private contractors, are moving US equipment to Kuwait

Last month, Moses said, the massive staging area for these convoys handled 1,000 vehicles per day.

That number has since fallen to 500, because most of the stuff in Iraq has already left.

Most of the trucks are hired from private contractors.

“We’re going to be here until the end of the mission. We’re going to make sure that every piece of equipment in Iraq is clear,” Moses said.

“What we’re doing is something that has not been done since Vietnam.”

(Moses may have underestimated the scale of the operation: Military officials say this is their largest logistical operation since World War II.)

Not everything will be shipped away, though. The army will leave $220 million worth of equipment at Camp Adder, much of it containerised housing units (CHUs, in the military’s ubiquitous jargon), trailers which housed the base’s thousands of soldiers.

There is also a parking lot full of civilian vehicles used on the base, many in a state of disrepair after eight years of dusty roads and searing summer heat. The US is leaving those behind, as many as 950 vehicles, and handing the keys to the Iraqi government.

The military says this equipment will help the Iraqi security forces, though its real motives are a bit simpler: The US is leaving behind anything which is not worth the cost of shipping.

“We had three choices with that equipment,” said Captain Rick Kaiser.

“We can walk away and abandon it. We can pay the millions of dollars it would cost to ship back to the United States. Or we can leave it… they’ll still get some use out of this, where if we try to ship it back it won’t survive the shipping.”

Source: Al Jazeera