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News and opinions on situation in Iraq
A parallel universe Paul Rogers

11 – 5 – 2006

The building of a massive new United States embassy and military bases in and around Baghdad signals the US determination to remain in Iraq for the long term.

As the Iraq war becomes increasingly unpopular within the United States and President George W Bush records exceptionally low approval ratings, the administration needs to redouble its efforts to present the situation in Iraq as one of steady improvement. It can point to the fact that a new prime minister has at last been agreed , while the Pentagon holds back on replacing several thousand troops due to return home from Iraq. The political and media line follows: the trend of events in Iraq is positive, and this will allow plenty of troop withdrawals by the time of the congressional mid-term elections on 7 November 2006.

The reality on the ground in Iraq is very different. The Iraqi government has reported 1,091 people killed in Baghdad alone during April, with car bombings, assassinations and attacks by death squads a daily occurrence . The damage inflicted on American forces has received little media attention in recent weeks, mainly because there have been no major losses in individual incidents. Yet there has been absolutely no let up in the attacks, even as the US military restricts itself much more to large secure bases coupled with movement by air rather than road whenever possible.

A recent development has been the much-increased use of C-130 transport aircraft for journeys within Iraq, for moving supplies and personnel around that would previously have gone by road convoy. Despite this, and the extensive restrictions to base, the US military casualty remain serious – since the beginning of April, 100 US soldiers have been killed and almost 600 injured.

Image and reality

This is the situation on the ground , contradicting the impression given by Pentagon and other official sources that the US military deployments in Iraq are essentially temporary. US defence department officials do talk of planning for the next three years or so, but the term “permanent base” is simply not in the lexicon. This hesitancy is put into perspective by recent press reports from some of the larger facilities such as the al-Asad base in western Anbar province, where there is abundant evidence of construction for a long-term presence (see Oliver Poole, “Football and pizza point to US staying for long haul “, Daily Telegraph, 11 February 2006). The situation of the United States in Iraq seems then to belong to two parallel universes, one in which its forces will draw down progressively and the other in which they will stay for decades.

There is nothing new in the idea of a long-term occupation – indeed it was raised by an article in the New York Times just over three years ago and within weeks of the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime, and analysed in an earlier column in this series (see “Permanent occupation? “, 24 April 2003).

That column noted:

“If the prime intention were to ensure a completely independent and democratic Iraq, then the signs would include the early and substantial involvement of the UN and other intergovernmental organisations in reconstruction and in the democratic transition, the rapid withdrawal of military forces and their replacement by an international stabilisation force, and the absence of any intention to maintain a long-term military presence in the country. The early indications are that none of this will happen. Indeed, all the signs point to long-term US control.”

Three years later it would be possible to rationalise what has happened by claiming that the United Nations was too cautious (especially after the bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, that many other countries refused to aid the stabilisation process, and that the insurgency – rather than any original strategic imperative – has been responsible for the large US troop concentrations.

There may be some truth in these considerations, yet as a whole they simply do not square with the parallel universe where the United States is building a series of massive political and military complexes at key locations across Iraq.

The new US embassy being constructed in Baghdad is a prime example – the world’s largest such building, and indeed not so much an embassy as a small town. Constructed largely by non-Iraqi labour, with the lead contractor from Kuwait, the $592 million complex is already one third finished and is scheduled for completion in mid-2007 (see Michael Hirsh, “Stuck in the Hot Zone “, Newsweek, 1 May 2006). It will have an estimated 1,000 staff, comprise two office blocks and a number of apartment buildings, contain its own leisure facilities, be independent of the thoroughly unreliable Baghdad electricity and water supplies, and boast exceptionally high levels of security, including a substantial marine-corps barracks.

The complex will maintain the closest of relationships with future Iraqi governments, not least because such governments will be dependent on a substantial US presence at a series of “super-bases”, four of which are currently being developed. The most advanced is Balad , north of Baghdad, which had $228.7 million allocated to it in 2005; two other facilities are getting substantial upgrades – al-Asad in the west (with a $46.3 million expenditure for 2006) and Tallil in the south (aiming for $110.3 million).

Balad is strategically close to Baghdad but sufficiently away from major urban concentrations to avoid continual attacks from insurgents, and the other centres – including al-Qayyarah in the north – are similarly remote. At the same time, the three bases away from Baghdad are very usefully located to secure the main oil reserves. Iraq’s current oilfields are either in the south (covered by Tallil ) or in the north (covered by al-Qayyarah); there is an expectation that future exploration will uncover substantial further reserves in the western desert (conveniently watched over by the camp at al-Asad).

All four bases have been built up from ones originally developed by the Saddam Hussein regime, but the rate of building and modernisation has been remarkable . Al-Asad currently has 17,000 troops and construction workers stationed in an area of forty-two square kilometres, with Burger King, Subway and Pizza Hut franchises already open and a car dealership and Hertz rental agency within the complex. Two bus routes connect different parts of the base, which is sixteen kilometres from the nearest town. At Tallil, a 6,000-seater mess hall is planned. At all four installations, most of the personnel never leave the protected areas.

Balad airbase and the adjacent Camp Anaconda are the most notable examples. Balad alone has 25,000 military and civilian personnel and has been the subject of a massive expansion of its facilities for handling aircraft and helicopters (with a large involvement by Turkish companies). Two large air transport ramps (hard-standings) have been constructed: one for C-5 cargo planes – the largest in US airforce service – and another for the C-130 Hercules workhorses to service the C-130 squadron that was transferred in January 2006 to Balad from Kuwait.

Perhaps most indicative of all, though, are the new helicopter facilities. These include a recently completed ramp that accommodates 120 helicopters, one of the largest military concentrations anywhere in the world. According to the site commander, Brigadier-General Frank Gorenc, Balad is now averaging 27,500 air movements a month, making it second only to London’s Heathrow airport in the world

This war, and the next

As the construction of the large facilities continues, so the US forces withdraw from smaller centres. Since March 2005, thirty-four bases have been evacuated out of 110, and many more will be closed in the remaining months of 2006. As that happens, the really large bases will become increasingly significant, for four reasons:

  • they are all in relatively remote locations and are therefore easier to keep secure
  • they are capable of handling large transport aircraft so that their maintenance is not dependent solely on susceptible road convoys
  • bases such as Balad are able to deploy substantial forces of attack helicopters as well as fixed-wing strike aircraft such as the F-16; these are available for counter-insurgency duties where they are increasingly preferred to ground-based patrols, even if the use of heavy airpower increases the risk of civilian casualties and consequent anti-American anger
  • Balad, Tallil and al-Qayyarah are well within the borders of Iraq, set back a long way from the border with Iran and therefore within heavily-protected airspace. At the same time, they stretch from north to south along the western side of Iran, making them eminently suitable for air operations against Iran. Their size and capabilities make them superior to aircraft carriers in this respect, especially if an initial attack on Iranian nuclear facilities resulted in Iranian responses that required long-term bombing campaigns against a range of targets in Iran (see “Iran: war by October? “, 20 April 2006).

It is in the context of this more general, regional picture where the significance of these permanent bases may really lie. While they may be seen as playing a near-permanent role in securing Iraq and its oil reserves for US interests, it is their potential role in the region’s next war that may come to be more important. If that is the case, then the hundreds of millions of dollars currently going into enhancing these installations should come as no surprise.

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