By Christine SpolarChicago Tribune
March 23, 2004
From the ashes of abandoned Iraqi army bases, U.S. military engineers are overseeing the building of an enhanced system of American bases designed to last for years. Last year, as troops poured over the Kuwait border to invade Iraq, the U.S. military set up at least 120 forward operating bases. Then came hundreds of expeditionary and temporary bases that were to last between six months and a year for tactical operations while providing soldiers with such comforts as e-mail and Internet access.
Now U.S. engineers are focusing on constructing 14 "enduring bases," long-term encampments for the thousands of American troops expected to serve in Iraq for at least two years. The bases also would be key outposts for Bush administration policy advisers.
As the U.S. scales back its military presence in Saudi Arabia, Iraq provides an option for an administration eager to maintain a robust military presence in the Middle East and intent on a muscular approach to seeding democracy in the region. The number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, between 105,000 and 110,000, is expected to remain unchanged through 2006, according to military planners.
"Is this a swap for the Saudi bases?" asked Army Brig. Gen. Robert Pollman, chief engineer for base construction in Iraq. "I don't know. ... When we talk about enduring bases here, we're talking about the present operation, not in terms of America's global strategic base. But this makes sense. It makes a lot of logical sense."
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy chief of operations for the coalition in Iraq, said the military engineers are trying to prepare for any eventuality. "This is a blueprint for how we could operate in the Middle East," Kimmitt said. "[But] the engineering vision is well ahead of the policy vision. What the engineers are saying now is: Let's not be behind the policy decision. Let's make this place ready so we can address policy options."
To that end, the U.S. plans to operate from former Iraqi bases in Baghdad, Mosul, Taji, Balad, Kirkuk and in areas near Nasiriyah, near Tikrit, near Fallujah and between Irbil and Kirkuk. There also are plans to renovate and enhance airfields in Baghdad and Mosul, and rebuild 70 miles of road on the main route for U.S. troops headed north.
Dollar figures have not been released. The Defense Department plans to build the bases under its own contracts separate from the State Department and its Embassy in Baghdad. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the head of coalition forces in Iraq, recently outlined a plan that would slice the current Coalition Provisional Authority into pieces after sovereignty is returned to Iraqis at the end of June.
The U.S. Embassy would absorb some coalition workers as Embassy personnel; the Defense Department would take others. Its workers would direct most of the major contracts connected to the $18 billion allocated for Iraq reconstruction, military planners said.
The Program Management Office, the agency that has been doling out the cash, will remain under the Defense Department. "It was a significant win," one military planner said. "In terms of controlling the money, Defense is in control."
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