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An Enduring Presence

There are people in Washington … who never intend to withdraw military forces from Iraq and they’re looking for 10, 20, 50 years in the future … the reason that we went into Iraq was to establish a permanent military base in the Gulf region, and I have never heard any of our leaders say that they would commit themselves to the Iraqi people that ten years from now there will be no military bases of the United States in Iraq.
– former President Jimmy Carter

December 20, 2007
by Rob Lafferty

You can forget about seeing all American troops withdrawn from Iraq anytime soon. All the front-running presidential candidates have made it clear that they envision keeping a large force in Iraq during their first term in office, if not longer. Congress had the chance last year to pass legislation forbidding permanent military bases in Iraq, but decided not to include that provision in the final vote. And most of the soldiers sent to Iraq in the future will live on four huge US bases that are already in place.

The Pentagon invested nearly $1 billion in 2006 for base construction in Iraq and will spend even more this year, yet it prefers to call them "enduring camps" because that phrase doesn't sound quite so permanent. For example, the logistics center for all military operations central Iraq, next to one of the busiest airfields in the country, is called Camp Anaconda. The 20,000 soldiers and 20,000 contractors and Defense Department employees who live there prefer a more accurate name – they call it "Mortaritaville".

Thomas Ricks, writing in the Washington Post, called it "a unique creation, a small American town smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq."

It sprawls over sixteen square miles of the desert sixty miles north of Baghdad, adjacent to Balad Air Base. According to Foreign Policy magazine, "It is also perfectly positioned to project U.S. power throughout the Middle East, and it will likely do so for many years to come."

In an interview with National Public Radio earlier this year, base commander Brig. Gen. Burt Field agreed with that assessment.

"It's centrally located, it's a large facility, and we've worked very hard to improve the situation," Field said. "So it would certainly be one they should consider if we're going to be a long-term presence here."

Balad Air Base and so isolated that most of the personnel never leave the base and only see Iraqi people at the regular Thursday market. It's large enough to have its own regular bus service on new roads with sidewalks. The air-conditioned living quarters have Internet service, cable TV and international phone service. Soldiers can buy lunch at Subway, Burger King, Popeye's or Pizza Hut. They can shop at either of two large post exchanges for anything from an iPod to a flat-screen TV to a bicycle or even a Harley Davidson motorcycle, should they feel the need.

For recreation there's two movie theaters and a miniature golf course designed to look like a battlefield. For exercise there's an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Camp Victory at the Baghdad airport can house 15,000 troops while Camp Falcon can accommodate 7,000 soldiers; those numbers don't include an equal number of support personnel that never see combat duty out in the streets of the city.

Tallil Air Base has a new $14 million mess hall that can feed 6,000 soldiers at a time. Al-Asad Air Base in the western desert covers nineteen square miles and is home to 17,000 troops and other personnel.

Al-Tajji Camp is actually two camps. Originally built as a model military city by Iraq's Republican Guard, it's now divided by a patrolled concrete barrier. 10,000 US troops live on one side of the fence with amenities similar to what Balad has to offer, while their Iraqi counterparts live in 90-year old barracks built by the British after World War I.

By the middle of 2005 there were officially 110 US military bases in Iraq. Those have been consolidated into 75 regional facilities that may be reduced to fourteen or fifteen, including the four major bases that have hardened runways and handle as much air traffic as the busiest airports in the world.

Our military also stages operations from Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. They continue to use runways and warehouses in Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

"We'll be in the region for the foreseeable future," said Maj. Gen. Allen G. Peck of US Central Command in a rare public comment. "Our intention would be to stay as long as the host nations will have us."

Little is said or written in the news about the extent of US military presence throughout the Middle East because most Arab governments have asked us to keep a low profile on the subject. They're concerned over public reaction in their own countries; after the invasion of Iraq, the primary US base in Saudi Arabia was closed down at the request of the Saudi government because of intense pressure exerted by Saudi fundamentalists.

That's what enraged Osama Bin Laden in the first place and drove him from his position as a US ally in Afghanistan; the presence of a foreign army, infidels to his eyes, in and around the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. And most of the citizens of Iraq aren't happy about US air bases occupying large blocks of land in their country, either.

Pentagon officials say that the military is in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, and that it will depart when asked to do so. That position ignores the fact that America invaded the country without any such invitation, and ignores several attempts by members of the Iraqi government to pass legislation demanding that the US get out as soon as possible.

That's not going to happen unless we elect a president from a third political party, because whoever wins the upcoming Democrat and Republican primary elections won't do anything more than bring a few combat brigades home. The American flag will continue to fly over dozens of outpost of the American Empire, such as it is. Soldiers will continue to die while defending those bases and conducting patrols and operations in hostile lands.

And the American public will accept our continued military presence in the Middle East. We need to protect what politicians like to call "our vital interest" in the region – which is simply the ongoing effort to suck all the oil out of the sands of Arabia and Persia. How else will we have enough gasoline to keep driving our cars to the mall to buy cheap plastic products made in China?

Of course, the Iraqi people may eventually have a say in all of that, as the Saudi citizens did. A genuine, sovereign Iraqi government seems unlikely to rise up soon, but it will. When it does, you can be sure that their first order of business will be to remove all foreign occupiers from the land where some of the first cities in human history were built.