Camp Victory, the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq, getting ready to close

September 15, 2011

An unlikely quiet hangs over Camp Victory these days, broken only by a rare blast of rocket fire.

This base — the headquarters of the U.S. military in Iraq — was once a city unto itself, teeming with 46,000 troops and four-star generals plotting their next moves from Saddam Hussein’s old palaces.

In a few short months, the American military presence here will be history; the tanks, weapons, computers and personnel all shipped out; the gates locked and the keys turned over to the Iraqi government.

Already, only 24,000 troops remain on the base, and the amenities that once made this the most American of outposts in Iraq — the Cinnabon, Subway and Burger King kiosks, as well as the PXs that sold everything from microwaves to thong underwear — are rapidly closing.

A sign tacked up recently in the restroom near one of the last remaining mess halls reads, “Due to the drawdown the maid has been fired. Therefore clean up after yourself!!”

“This whole place is becoming a ghost town,” said Lt. Col. Sean Wilson, a public affairs officer for the Army, who lives on base. “You get the feeling you’re the last person on Earth.”

Like so many before them, several of the troops charged with the historic task of shutting down Camp Victory are just marking their time before their tour ends and they ship out. Others, however, are keenly aware of their role in this, the finale of the U.S. occupation here.

Brig. Gen. Bradley A. Becker is a deputy commanding general for support for the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, which will be the last division headquarters left in Iraq by October. He is overseeing the closure from his office on the base, tracking the details on a dry-erase board on which the rapidly waning days are ticked off. The military has gone from 505 bases at the height of its troop strength in Iraq, in 2008, to 47, and Camp Victory is slated to close even if the Obama administration wins backing for a plan to keep a few thousand U.S. troops in the country beyond the end of the year.

Becker’s job now, he says, is “to write the final chapter” of eight years of war.

A cocoon in the war

In that time, the base — about a 15-minute Humvee ride from downtown Baghdad — has become the iconic stomping ground for U.S. forces in Iraq, the first stop for dozens of dignitaries and celebrities coming for tours.

Both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have come. Vice President Biden came to visit when son Beau was stationed in the country. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld came early on to proclaim that “truly amazing” progress had been made. Much later, Gen. David H. Petraeus oversaw the troop “surge” from here.

Hussein built the hunting retreat and resort that would become Camp Victory in the 15 years leading up to the U.S.-led invasion, sparing no expense on nine palaces and villas ringing man-made lakes. Its centerpiece is the al-Faw palace — with 62 rooms, 29 bathrooms, a sweeping marble rotunda and an enormous chandelier. Troops scrawled “U.S.A. was here” in the battle dust in the main ballroom when they arrived in 2003; a few months later, their commanding officers decided they should move in.

Over the years, what is officially Victory Base Complex grew to be a well-guarded cocoon, with a hospital, electrical grid and bottled-water plant, ringed by 27 miles of blast walls and concertina wire. Troops living in far worse conditions in outlying areas could come for R&R and sit by one of its pools. Others came and went on their tours without ever once venturing outside the walls of the base into Baghdad itself.

“For a large number of people, it was all they ever saw of Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Jerry Brooks, an Army reservist serving as the command historian for U.S. forces in Iraq.

But Camp Victory’s residents could never shut out the war completely. Some troops venturing outside its protective ring never returned, and the mortar and rocket fire that even now peppers the place took lives inside its walls. As recently as July, two soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb at a checkpoint just outside the base, Brooks said. A few still do evening patrols, though most are busy packing up and shutting down.

The base eventually came to have its own myths and urban legends, such as the often-told story about the outsize carp that still swim in the lake outside the al-Faw palace. These fish were said to have developed a taste for human flesh after they were fed Hussein’s victims, a tale that has never been substantiated. They will eat a baby duck whole, however; you can see it on their fan Web site.

Although he has been dead for nearly five years, Hussein’s presence is still everywhere. There’s his enormous chair with lion-head armrests, a gift from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, its headrest stained with Hussein’s pomade. There’s the tiny courtroom where he was arraigned after capture. There’s the bombed-out villa where he was imprisoned, where he grew tomatoes in the garden with Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majeed, a henchman also known as “Chemical Ali.” And there he is in a tile mural in a remote corner of the base, resplendent but chipping, one of the last images of Hussein in Iraq that has not been defaced.

The other day, on a tour of the al-Faw palace, Brooks stopped by a chandelier on the second floor and pointed to where strings of glass beads were missing. Soldiers had plucked those off long ago and taken them home as souvenirs, he said. He often thinks about the fate of those young men and women when he sees the gaps in light.

“I always wonder, ‘Did they make it home?’ ” he mused. “What happened to them?”

‘Was it all worth it?’

Perhaps the most poignant work going on these days at the base is the tearing down of the many memorials erected across the complex to the troops stationed here who have been lost to the violence. Last year, for example, the guard tower where the shots were fired that killed Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, the first Medal of Honor recipient in Iraq, in April 2003 was taken down.

The tower — pockmarked from Smith’s .50-caliber machine gun — was the site of memorial services over the years. It has now been shipped to Fort Stewart in Georgia to be preserved.

Troops stationed here say it’s difficult to talk about lives that were lost, or — as they pack everything from boxes of weapons parts to large cargo crates full of heavy equipment — to ponder the larger questions hanging over the drawdown.

“One of the questions I dread most is, in the end, was it all worth it?” said one soldier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of offending his superiors. “You can’t answer it quickly.”

Becker, for his part, has been thinking about his early days of the war, when he teamed with local tribal sheiks and tried to clear insurgents out of a town near Mosul, north of Baghdad. One of the sheiks had his house blown up for cooperating with the Americans — he went ahead and rebuilt one next door — and another leader lost his legs to a bombing.

These days, Becker has been watching the buildings at Camp Victory slowly empty out and says he feels a bit melancholy. The base will be turned over to the Iraqi government in early December, just about a month shy of the Dec. 31 deadline for the overall troop departure.

“You see the [mess halls] empty and the gyms empty, and you remember the thousands of soldiers who used to be here, going out on missions,” Becker said. “As we turn the lights out on this place, you’ll feel a sense of loss.”

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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