By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005
BAGHDAD -- U.S. military commanders have prepared plans to consolidate American troops in Iraq into four large air bases as they look ahead to giving up more than 100 other bases now occupied by international forces, officers said.
Several officers involved in drafting the consolidation plan said it entailed the construction of longer-lasting facilities at the sites, including barracks and office structures made of concrete block instead of the metal trailers and tin-sheathed buildings that have become the norm at bigger U.S. bases in Iraq.
The new, sturdier buildings will give the bases a more permanent character, the officers acknowledged. But they said the consolidation plan was not meant to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Instead, they said, it is part of a withdrawal expected to occur in phases, with Iraqi forces gradually taking over many of the bases inhabited by U.S. and other foreign troops. Eventually, U.S. units would end up concentrated at the four heavily fortified, strategically located hubs, enabling them to provide continued logistical support and emergency combat assistance, the officers said.
"We call it BRAC for Iraq," said one general, referring to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission now deciding which bases to close in the United States. "If we're going to withdraw, we need a base plan."
The officers said a master plan for the positioning of U.S. forces in the Middle East, maintained by U.S. Central Command, did not envision keeping U.S. forces in Iraq permanently. Instead, it calls for what one Army colonel here described as "strategic overwatch" from bases in Kuwait, meaning U.S. forces there would be near enough to respond to events in Iraq if necessary.
Nonetheless, the consolidation plan appears to reflect a judgment by U.S. military commanders that American forces are likely to be in Iraq for some years, even after their numbers begin to decline, and that they probably will continue to face danger. The new buildings are being designed to withstand direct mortar strikes, according to a senior military engineer. Funding for the first group of redesigned barracks was included in the $82 billion supplemental war-spending bill approved by Congress this month, he said.
Already this year, U.S. forces have vacated 13 bases, turning most of them over to Iraqi military or police units in the Baghdad area and shifting the U.S. troops to other locations.
U.S. forces currently occupy 106 bases, ranging in size from the sprawling Camp Victory complex near Baghdad's international airport where the U.S. military command is headquartered, to some outposts with as few as 500 soldiers. Additionally, the United States operates four detention facilities and several convoy support centers for servicing the long daily truck runs from Kuwait into Iraq.
No timetable exists for turning over all the bases, the officers said. Any decision to begin reducing U.S. forces, they stressed, will be based on a variety of factors -- chief among them, the strength of the insurgency and the ability of Iraq's security services to fight it.
Although U.S. commanders have made clear they would like to begin drawing down troops from the current level of about 138,000 by some time next year, they say no decision has been reached.
Still, as Iraqi units are formed and start operating, they will need bases, and U.S. planners anticipate giving up space to them. Most of the property that U.S. forces occupied after they invaded had belonged to the Iraqi government and was used by the former army and other security services.
"We know, by phase, when we'll turn over or close which base," said Col. Mark W. Yenter, the senior engineer for Multinational Corps-Iraq. "This allows us to focus resources on those bases that will be here the longest."
According to Yenter and others working on the plan, the four bases were chosen to enable U.S. forces to maintain a foothold in various regions of Iraq. Centered around airfields to facilitate resupply operations and troop mobility, the four are Tallil in the south, Al Asad in the west, Balad in the center and either Irbil or Qayyarah in the north.
Each base is being designed to hold a brigade-size combat team plus aviation units and other support personnel. Initially referred to in planning documents as "enduring bases," the term was changed in February to "contingency operating bases."
"We didn't want to pick places that are too near Iraqi population centers, but we did want ones that would still allow us to influence an area and give us some power projection capability," said the general, who is involved in the planning and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In time, the officers said, all of these last strongholds are expected to have sharing arrangements with Iraqi units. One officer noted that Tallil already is used partly by the small Iraqi air force.
"At some point, you cross the middle line and end up with U.S. contingents on Iraqi bases instead of Iraqi units on U.S. bases," Yenter said.
This is not the first time U.S. commanders have drawn up plans to consolidate forces in Iraq. Early last year, before the insurgency strengthened, senior officers spoke of pulling troops out of urban centers and concentrating them in less obtrusive locations.
Particularly sensitive to the image of U.S. commanders and their staffs occupying elaborate palaces throughout Iraq that once belonged to former president Saddam Hussein, military leaders issued an order last August to prepare to vacate the palaces starting in March 2005. The order, which applied to palaces in Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi, Basra and Baghdad, was rescinded in November after planners concluded that setting up replacement facilities would be too costly, officers said.
Under the new consolidation plan, three palaces will be turned over to the Iraqi government by the end of the year -- two in Tikrit and one in Mosul -- with more to follow later. The majority of other U.S.-occupied property is assigned to go eventually either to the Defense or Interior ministries. But the fate of a number of other bases has yet to be determined. U.S. planners are exploring options with other national government ministries as well as provincial and local governments.
"The issue with returning a lot of these facilities to the government of Iraq is whether the government is prepared to provide the security, the care and custody," said Maj. Noelle Briand, who heads a basing working group on the command staff. "My primary concern is that the government identifies the tenant that's going in and how it'll be able to provide for security."
Among the major unresolved issues is the future of the Camp Victory complex. Also unsettled is what will become of U.S.-run detention facilities, which currently hold more than 11,000 prisoners.
U.S. officers say plans for further base reductions have not yet been considered.
"Four is as far as we've gone down in our planning," Briand said.