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US bases in Iraq: a costly legacy

By David R. Francis / April 3, 2006



United States taxpayers have spent an inflation-adjusted $1 trillion to keep military bases in South Korea since the war ended there in 1953. Those bases remain in place, though they are shrinking.

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Some military analysts wonder if 20 or so years from now the US will still have costly "enduring" bases in Iraq. ("Permanent" is a term the Pentagon generally avoids in referring to the hundreds of bases it has around the globe.)

Alternatively, should the US decide to leave Iraq - perhaps because a full-fledged civil war puts American armed forces in a too-perilous position - the personnel and their equipment could be flown out quickly. "They could come home in a month," calculates John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.com, a website specializing in military affairs.

Maybe three months, figures Gordon Adams, head of Security Policy Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Hiring Ukraine's huge Antonov cargo planes might speed the process.

So far, though, it seems clear that the Pentagon would prefer to keep its bases in Iraq. It has already spent $1 billion or more on them, outfitting some with underground bunkers and other characteristics of long-term bases. The $67.6 billion emergency bill to cover Iraq and Afghanistan military costs includes $348 million for further base construction.

That supplemental appropriation was passed last month by the House and will soon come before the Senate.

With the midterm congressional elections eight months away, there is a widespread assumption the Pentagon will withdraw goodly numbers of US troops from Iraq before then. But no top American or British authority has ruled out keeping permanent bases in Iraq.

"At the moment, there are no plans for long-term bases in the country," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a marine during a question-and-answer session last December. But he also said the US might discuss basing American troops in Iraq with a new Iraqi government.

When President Bush told the press March 21 that it will be decided by "future presidents and future governments of Iraq" when there will be no American forces in Iraq, his words intensified speculation that several of the approximately 75 bases in Iraq will remain occupied by US forces for an extended period.

Maybe not, though.

The Iraq war has become so unpopular in this country that a resolution declaring the US has "no plan to establish a permanent ... military presence in Iraq" passed the House last month without a single Republican "nay."

The resolution was inserted into the $67.6 billion bill by Rep. Thomas Allen (D) of Maine. Mr. Allen expects that when the Senate considers a similar bill this month, his resolution - though it has no power to force action by Mr. Bush - is likely to be removed by the Republican leadership. But, he says, many Iraqis believe the real goal of the US invasion was to assure access to Iraq's huge oil reserves. The fact of permanent bases would tend to confirm that fear and thus fuel the insurgency.

That concern may be why military officials dodge the issue of permanent American bases in Iraq.

In any case, some US bases are huge. Camp Anaconda, near Balad (north of Baghdad), occupies 15 square miles, boasts two swimming pools, a gym, a miniature-golf course, and a first-run movie theater, says Mr. Jamail. Of the airbase's 20,000 occupants, fewer than 1,000 ever leave it and thereby take extra risk of attack.

Experts and academics offer various strategic reasons for the bases. Zoltan Grossman, a geographer at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., notes that since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the US has established a string of 35 new bases between Poland and Pakistan, not including the Iraqi bases. He maintains the US is establishing a "sphere of influence" in that region.

"It's very dangerous," he argues. It invites attacks on the bases and risks pulling the US into the ethnic and religious conflicts of the area. It also could result in "blow back" to the US, just as American bases in Saudi Arabia motivated in part the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Another theory, put forward by Joseph Gerson, author of a book on US bases worldwide and director of an American Friends Service Committee program on peace, is that the war and bases aim at maintaining US control over the Middle East with its massive oil resources.

The US has placed 400,000 personnel in bases around the world, he says.

Stationing military forces abroad can be more expensive than keeping them at home. The cost to keep bases in Iraq open would be "a few billions" a year, suggests Mr. Pike.

The extra costs could include rotating forces home, combat pay, and separation allowances for military families, as well as fuel for planes, tanks, etc.

So far, the Iraq war has cost the US $280 billion.

Pike suspects the US will find "all kinds of reasons" for not leaving Iraq. For instance, the US has been training Iraqi combat units, but not support units. The Iraqis rely on being resupplied by the US and its allies. The Iraqi military has no combat planes and only a couple of dozen tanks. Iraq, says Pike, is a US "protectorate." It hasn't yet built "a real army."

Or the US could argue that, as an occupying power, it has an obligation to see it leaves behind a stable government. That could take years. Or the US could say that its troops must stay to prevent a bloody civil war.

Besides, today's US peace movement is "completely pathetic," Pike says, and thus unlikely to compel a quick exodus.

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