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'People woke up, and they were gone'
At one former U.S. base, quietly departing Americans leave their mark in the mundane detritus of occupation

By Anthony Shadid
Friday, December 4, 2009

SUWAYRAH, IRAQ -- The U.S. military called it shock and awe, and it began on March 21, 2003 -- 8:09 p.m., to be exact. It concluded here with a sigh. No one quite remembers when the Americans withdrew from Forward Operating Base Summers.

"One morning they left, and they never came back," said Osama Majid, a vendor on the road to the base, as he hovered over his shelves of Iranian and Turkish packaged sweets. "People woke up, and they were gone."

Occupations probably never really end. Even after the last of the 115,000 U.S. soldiers leave, this one will live on in the national psyche, in the bearing of Iraq's military, in cowboy boots, tattoos and, of course, language. "Badjat," demand Iraqi sentries at Summers' gates, waiting for a visitor's identity card. Sometimes occupations leave behind the banal.

Summers is like an archaeological dig.

Perched 30 miles southeast of Baghdad, the former U.S. base -- known before the Americans arrived and after they departed as Suwayrah Airport -- often strikes the pose of a post-apocalyptic outcast, the posture of much of the country. The land around it is austere, possessed of beauty only at the gloaming, when loneliness becomes serene. Its outskirts were looted of everything years ago, down to the tan brick that once lined buildings' walls. The compound itself feels forlorn and deserted, the doors of its buildings barricaded by plywood, its windows sealed by cinder block.

Inside those buildings is the swill of American commercial culture, feeling as incongruous as the winter rain that falls on the country's desert these days.

Strewn on concrete platforms where soldiers once lived are cans of Skoal, a package of Orville Redenbacher's Movie Theater Butter Popcorn and a Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies wrapper. In another room is a Pringles Sour Cream & Onion can, a plastic jar of Herr's cheese snacks and a tin of Chef Boyardee Beefaroni. Scattered nearby are energy drink cans such as Java Monster and Rip It. A pigeon rustles the quiet, past a door where a sign still reads: "Quiet Hours, 2200-1100, No Exceptions."

"When people go from a place, from any place, they're going to leave a mess behind," said Sgt. Hazem Said, with the tiny Iraqi 2nd Company that inherited the base.

At times, America's withdrawal from Iraq appears as mundane as its invasion was climactic. At the peak of the U.S. military buildup in Iraq in 2007, there were more than 160,000 troops. Today, there are 115,000, and many of those who have left often departed seemingly in stealth. By August, only 50,000 are supposed to remain.

From the once-proud city of Baghdad, they have withdrawn through a landscape that bears the scars of the battles they fought and witnessed, where the echoes of occupation still sound along the road in the grunts of anarchy and the whispers of abandonment. Everything seems bent and broken, torn and tangled, from the railing on the highway to the signs bearing names of faraway destinations to the rubble piling up along the curbside. At least those curbs are not yet crumbling.

Coiled barbed wire has kept its sheen but lost its purpose. Only the trunks remain of palm trees cut to deprive insurgents of cover. Withering, their replacements evoke a pessimism about their chances. Everything around them seems khaki, the color of war.

At the end of the road from Baghdad, in southernmost Umm Qasr, with its port facing the Persian Gulf, military convoys ply a road whose asphalt, melted in the sun, bears the deep grooves of years of vehicle tracks. Carrying Humvees, generators, fuel and forklifts, the trucks keep a precise distance over an imprecise landscape, passing knots of Iraqi soldiers dressed in mismatched camouflage at untidy checkpoints.

Not everything goes with them.

At the former FOB Summers, the sandbags stay behind. So does the generator, even though a fuel shortage has kept it from working this week. A red stop sign rendered in English remains at the gate. As do the graffiti. "USAF -- Death on Call," one reads. Basketball hoops still stand, without their nets. "No dunking," warn signs on two of them. Scattered under one hoop is a "Quick Start Guide" for an armored vehicle known as an MRAP. "For official use only," it says. Nearby are discarded letters from home, gathering dust.

"Dear Soldier," one embossed with a smiley face reads, "words are not enough to express my thanks for your self-less service. God bless America and God bless you."

In the commander's office, flimsy walls are still adorned in Hello Kitty wallpaper (purple and pink). On the floor is a box from Iowa that once held hamburgers and hot dogs. An unused U.S. Postal Service envelope promises to deliver anywhere in the United States.

And, of course, the concrete barricades are still here, everywhere.

"They left us the walls," said Sgt. Ahmed Hussein, manning the gate.

He looked around. "It reminds me of a prison," he said. "They put concrete around you and lock a gate. What else would you think?"

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