As Iraq war ends, strange hush descends on US bases
With all US troops set to be withdrawn from Iraq by Dec. 31, bases that once bubbled with activity are now emptying, leaving behind wistful stragglers and a shortage of Oreo cookies.
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Pickup trucks drive by filled with office chairs, as well as hard drives and copy machines bound for destruction. Soldiers note that Iraqi forces – perpetually short of such office supplies – would especially love to inherit the latter, but it’s the sort of hand-me-down that comes with security considerations.Skip to next paragraph
Once on the road, the trucks vie for right-of-way with old school buses. They will soon be filled with US troops bound for their last flight out in what has often been a long and grueling series of deployments to a country where they have lost loved ones, limbs, and, occasionally, witnessed the lives they once knew back home fall apart.
Amid the packing chaos, some soldiers find time for reflection. In Baghdad's international zone, they occasionally make their way through the lobby of the former Ba’ath Party headquarters, now decorated for the holidays with a 10-foot-high pyramid of green soda cans, up the stairs to the roof.
To walk on any rooftop during the height of the Iraq war entailed a fair amount of ducking and running to avoid the potshots of snipers or the occasional rocket. It was the sort of place troops didn’t want to be without some kneepads handy to help them keep low – an item of sports gear that quickly became ubiquitous among infantrymen waging urban warfare.
Today, a different sort of sports gear – a couple dozen golf clubs – lay in a bin beside a weathered workout mat here, doubling as a patch of astroturf. They have been left by visitors over the months as security has improved and golf aficionados could sneak away to take a few practice swings at the makeshift rooftop driving range ringed with netting.
A quintessential Baghdad panorama reaches to the horizon – the crossed swords of the Saddam-era parade grounds, the copper-domed review stand, the slow curve of the Tigris River.
There are, too, some new landmarks dotting the landscape. A crane beside the US compound is working on what will soon be a luxury hotel. The Iraqi decision to build the hotel, some US officials gripe, was a bit of a “slap in the face” to the Americans who remain here. US security experts did not relish the thought of providing a potential attack point for insurgents, with high floors that could make it easy to survey the embassy compound.
But, as troops shrug and say in what has become a popular mantra, “It’s their city now.”
And that city is, for the present, calm as once-war-torn cities go. The traffic jams at rush hour have become a welcome sight.
“I love seeing these traffic jams,” says Colonel Scott Alpeter, the chief of Army aviation for the new Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq (OSC-I), who deployed to the war in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2011. “I remember when everything was blown up and on fire.”
For his part, Lt. Col. Thomas Hanson, also of the OSC-I, compares flying over Baghdad these days to his previous tours. The city, once so busy with the business of war, seems quiet, he says: “It’s like visiting your favorite beach town in the winter.”
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