Elaborate U.S. bases raise long-term questions
EDITOR'S NOTE — This report is based on interviews with U.S.
military engineers and others before and during the writer's two
weeks as an embedded reporter at major U.S. bases in Iraq.
By Charles J. Hanley
-- -- BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq — The concrete goes on
forever, vanishing into the noonday glare, 2 million cubic feet
of it, a mile-long slab that's now the home of up to 120 U.S.
helicopters, a "heli-park" as good as any back in the States.
At another giant base, al-Asad in Iraq's western desert, the
17,000 troops and workers come and go in a kind of bustling
American town, with a Burger King, Pizza Hut and a car
dealership, stop signs, traffic regulations and young bikers
clogging the roads.
At a third hub down south, Tallil, they're planning a new mess
hall, one that will seat 6,000 hungry airmen and soldiers for
Are the Americans here to stay? Air Force mechanic Josh Remy is
sure of it as he looks around Balad.
"I think we'll be here forever," the 19-year-old airman from
Wilkes-Barre, Pa., told a visitor to his base.
The Iraqi people suspect the same. Strong majorities tell
pollsters they'd like to see a timetable for U.S. troops to
leave, but believe Washington plans to keep military bases in
The question of America's future in Iraq looms larger as the
U.S. military enters the fourth year of its war here, waged
first to oust President Saddam Hussein, and now to crush an
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, interim prime minister, has said he opposes
permanent foreign bases. A wide range of American opinion is
against them as well. Such bases would be a "stupid"
provocation, says Gen. Anthony Zinni, former U.S. Mideast
commander and a critic of the original U.S. invasion.
But events, in explosive situations like Iraq's, can turn "no"
into "maybe" and even "yes."
The Shiite Muslims, ascendant in Baghdad, might decide they need
long-term U.S. protection against insurgent Sunni Muslims.
Washington might take the political risks to gain a strategic
edge — in its confrontation with next-door Iran, for example.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and other U.S.
officials disavow any desire for permanent bases. But long-term
access, as at other U.S. bases abroad, is different from
"permanent," and the official U.S. position is carefully worded.
Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman on international
security, told The Associated Press it would be "inappropriate"
to discuss future basing until a new Iraqi government is in
place, expected in the coming weeks.
Less formally, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked
about "permanent duty stations" by a Marine during an Iraq visit
in December, allowed that it was "an interesting question." He
said it would have to be raised by the incoming Baghdad
government, if "they have an interest in our assisting them for
some period over time."
In Washington, Iraq scholar Phebe Marr finds the language
intriguing. "If they aren't planning for bases, they ought to
say so," she said. "I would expect to hear 'No bases."'
Right now what is heard is the pouring of concrete.
In 2005-06, Washington has authorized or proposed almost $1
billion for U.S. military construction in Iraq, as American
forces consolidate at Balad, known as Anaconda, and a handful of
other installations, big bases under the old regime.
They have already pulled out of 34 of the 110 bases they were
holding last March, said Maj. Lee English of the U.S. command's
Base Working Group, planning the consolidation.
"The coalition forces are moving outside the cities while
continuing to provide security support to the Iraqi security
forces," English said.
The move away from cities, perhaps eventually accompanied by
U.S. force reductions, will lower the profile of U.S. troops,
frequent targets of roadside bombs on city streets. Officers at
Al-Asad Air Base, 10 desert miles from the nearest town, say it
hasn't been hit by insurgent mortar or rocket fire since
Al-Asad will become even more isolated. The proposed 2006
supplemental budget for Iraq operations would provide $7.4
million to extend the no-man's-land and build new security
fencing around the base, which at 19 square miles is so large
that many assigned there take the Yellow or Blue bus routes to
get around the base, or buy bicycles at a PX jammed with
The latest budget also allots $39 million for new airfield
lighting, air traffic control systems and upgrades allowing
al-Asad to plug into the Iraqi electricity grid — a typical sign
of a long-term base.
At Tallil, besides the new $14 million dining facility, Ali Air
Base is to get, for $22 million, a double perimeter security
fence with high-tech gate controls, guard towers and a moat — in
military parlance, a "vehicle entrapment ditch with berm."
Here at Balad, the former Iraqi air force academy 40 miles north
of Baghdad, the two 12,000-foot runways have become the
logistics hub for all U.S. military operations in Iraq, and
major upgrades began last year.
Army engineers say 31,000 truckloads of sand and gravel fed nine
concrete-mixing plants on Balad, as contractors laid a $16
million ramp to park the Air Force's huge C-5 cargo planes; an
$18 million ramp for workhorse C-130 transports; and the vast,
$28 million main helicopter ramp, the length of 13 football
fields, filled with attack, transport and reconnaissance
Turkish builders are pouring tons more concrete for a fourth
ramp beside the runways, for medical-evacuation and other
aircraft on alert. And $25 million was approved for other
"pavement projects," from a special road for munitions trucks to
a compound for special forces.
The chief Air Force engineer here, Lt. Col. Scott Hoover, is
also overseeing two crucial projects to add to Balad's
longevity: equipping the two runways with new permanent
lighting, and replacing a weak 3,500-foot section of one runway.
Once that's fixed, "we're good for as long as we need to run
it," Hoover said. Ten years? he was asked. "I'd say so."
Away from the flight lines, among traffic jams and freshly
planted palms, life improves on 14-square-mile Balad for its
estimated 25,000 personnel, including several thousand American
and other civilians.
They've inherited an Olympic-sized pool and a chandeliered
cinema from the Iraqis. They can order their favorite
Baskin-Robbins flavor at ice cream counters in five dining
halls, and cut-rate Fords, Chevys or Harley-Davidsons, for
delivery at home, at a PX-run "dealership." On one recent
evening, not far from a big 24-hour gym, airmen hustled up and
down two full-length, lighted outdoor basketball courts as F-16
fighters thundered home overhead.
"Balad's a fantastic base," Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, the Air
Force's tactical commander in Iraq, said in an interview at his
Could it host a long-term U.S. presence?
"Eventually it could," said Gorenc, commander of the 332nd Air
Expeditionary Wing. "But there's no commitment to any of the
bases we operate, until somebody tells me that."
In the counterinsurgency fight, Balad's central location enables
strike aircraft to reach targets in minutes. And in the broader
context of reinforcing the U.S. presence in the oil-rich
Mideast, Iraq bases are preferable to aircraft carriers in the
Persian Gulf, said a longtime defense analyst.
"Carriers don't have the punch," said Gordon Adams of
Washington's George Washington University. "There's a huge
advantage to land-based infrastructure. At the level of strategy
it makes total sense to have Iraq bases."
A U.S. congressional study cited another, less discussed use for
possible Iraq bases: to install anti-ballistic defenses in case
Iran fires missiles.
American bases next door could either deter or provoke Iran,
noted Paul D. Hughes, a key planner in the early U.S. occupation
Overall, however, this retired Army colonel says American troops
are unwanted in the Middle East. With long-term bases in Iraq,
"We'd be inviting trouble," Hughes said.
"It's a stupid idea and clearly politically unacceptable,"
Zinni, a former Central Command chief, said in a Washington
interview. "It would damage our image in the region, where
people would decide that this" — seizing bases — "was our
Among Iraqis, the subject is almost too sensitive to discuss.
"People don't like bases," veteran politician Adnan Pachachi, a
member of the new Parliament, told the AP. "If bases are
absolutely necessary, if there's a perceived threat ... but I
don't think even Iran will be a threat."
If long-term basing is, indeed, on the horizon, "the politics
back here and the politics in the region say, 'Don't announce
it,"' Adams said in Washington. That's what's done elsewhere, as
with the quiet U.S. basing of spy planes and other aircraft in
the United Arab Emirates.
Army and Air Force engineers, with little notice, have worked to
give U.S. commanders solid installations in Iraq, and to give
policymakers options. From the start, in 2003, the first Army
engineers rolling into Balad took the long view, laying out a
10-year plan envisioning a move from tents to today's living
quarters in air-conditioned trailers, to concrete-and-brick
barracks by 2008.
In early 2006, no one's confirming such next steps, but a Balad
"master plan," details undisclosed, is nearing completion, a
possible model for al-Asad, Tallil and a fourth major base,
al-Qayyarah in Iraq's north.
AP Investigative Researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this
© 2006 Times Argus