If the U.S. government doesn't plan to occupy Iraq for any longer than necessary, why is it spending billions of dollars to build "enduring" bases?
When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters last December that he expected U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for another four years, he was merely confirming what any visitor to the country could have surmised. The omnipresence of the giant defense contractor KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root), the shipments of concrete and other construction materials, and the transformation of decrepit Iraqi military bases into fortified American enclaves—complete with Pizza Huts and DVD stores—are just the most obvious signs that the United States has been digging in for the long haul. It's a far cry from administration assurances after the invasion that the troops could start withdrawing from Iraq as early as the fall of 2003. And it is hardly consistent with a prediction by Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, that the troops would be out of Iraq within months, or with Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi's guess that the U.S. occupation would last two years. Take, for example, Camp Victory North, a sprawling base near Baghdad International Airport, which the U.S. military seized just before the ouster of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Over the past year, KBR contractors have built a small American city where about 14,000 troops are living, many hunkered down inside sturdy, wooden, air-conditioned bungalows called SEA (for Southeast Asia) huts, replicas of those used by troops in Vietnam. There's a Burger King, a gym, the country's biggest PX—and, of course, a separate compound for KBR workers, who handle both construction and logistical support. Although Camp Victory North remains a work in progress today, when complete, the complex will be twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo—currently one of the largest overseas posts built since the Vietnam War.
Such a heavy footprint seems counterproductive, given the growing antipathy felt by most Iraqis toward the U.S. military occupation. Yet Camp Victory North appears to be a harbinger of America's future in Iraq. Over the past year, the Pentagon has reportedly been building up to 14 "enduring" bases across the country—long-term encampments that could house as many as 100,000 troops indefinitely. John Pike, a military analyst who runs the research group GlobalSecurity.org, has identified a dozen of these bases, including three large facilities in and around Baghdad: the Green Zone, Camp Victory North, and Camp al-Rasheed, the site of Iraq’s former military airport. Also listed are Camp Cook, just north of Baghdad, a former Republican Guard "military city" that has been converted into a giant U.S. camp; Balad Airbase, north of Baghdad; Camp Anaconda, a 15-square-mile facility near Balad that housed 17,000 soldiers as of May 2004 and was being expanded for an additional 3,000; and Camp Marez, next to Mosul Airport, where, in December, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the base's dining tent, killing 13 U.S. troops and four KBR contractors eating lunch alongside the soldiers.
At these bases, KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary that works in cooperation with the Army Corps of Engineers, has been extending runways, improving security perimeters, and installing a variety of structures ranging from rigid-wall huts to aircraft hangars. Although the Pentagon considers most of the construction to be "temporary"—designed to last up to three years—similar facilities have remained in place for much longer at other "enduring" American bases, including Kosovo's Camp Bondsteel, which opened in 1999, and Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia, in place since the mid-1990s.
March/April 2005 Issue Mother Jones
Joshua Hammer is the Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and has reported extensively from Iraq. He is the author of A Season in Bethlehem: Unholy War in a Sacred Place and is currently a Nieman fellow at Harvard.