BALAD AIR BASE, IRAQ – The concrete goes on forever, vanishing into the noonday glare, 2 million cubic feet of it, a mile-long slab that’s now the home of as many as 120 U.S. helicopters, a “heli-park” as good as any back in the States.
At another giant base, al-Asad in Iraq’s western desert, the 17,000 troops and workers come and go in a kind of bustling American town, with a Burger King, Pizza Hut and a car dealership, stop signs, traffic regulations and young bikers clogging the roads.
At a third hub down south, Tallil, they’re planning a new mess hall, one that will seat 6,000 hungry airmen and soldiers for chow.
Are the Americans here to stay? Air Force mechanic Josh Remy is sure of it as he looks around Balad.
“I think we’ll be here forever,” the 19-year-old airman from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., told a visitor to his base.
The Iraqi people suspect the same. Strong majorities tell pollsters they’d like to see a timetable for U.S. troops to leave, but believe Washington plans to keep military bases in their country.
The question of America’s future in Iraq looms larger as the U.S. military enters the fourth year of its war here, waged first to oust President Saddam Hussein, and now to crush an Iraqi insurgency.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, interim prime minister, has said he opposes permanent foreign bases. A wide range of American opinion is against them as well.
Such bases would be a “stupid” provocation, said Gen. Anthony Zinni, former U.S. Mideast commander and a critic of the U.S. invasion.
But events, in explosive situations like Iraq’s, can turn “no” into “maybe” and even “yes.”
The Shiite Muslims, ascendant in Baghdad, might decide they need long-term U.S. protection against insurgent Sunni Muslims. Washington might take the political risks to gain a strategic edge — in its confrontation with next-door Iran, for example.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and other U.S. officials disavow any desire for permanent bases. But long-term access, as at other U.S. bases abroad, is different from “permanent,” and the official U.S. position is carefully worded.
Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman on international security, told the Associated Press it would be inappropriate to discuss future basing until a new Iraqi government is in place, expected in coming weeks.
Less formally, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when asked about “permanent duty stations” by a Marine during an Iraq visit in December, said it was “an interesting question.” He said it would have to be raised by the incoming Baghdad government, if “they have an interest in our assisting them for some period over time.”
In Washington, Iraq scholar Phebe Marr finds the language intriguing. “If they aren’t planning for bases, they ought to say so,” she said. “I would expect to hear, `No bases.’ ”
Right now what is heard is the pouring of concrete.
In 2005-06, Washington has authorized or proposed almost $1 billion for U.S. military construction in Iraq, as American forces consolidate at Balad (known as Anaconda) and a handful of other installations, big bases under the old regime.
They have already pulled out of 34 of the 110 bases they were holding last March, said Maj. Lee English of the U.S. command’s Base Working Group, which is planning the consolidation.
`The coalition forces are moving outside the cities while continuing to provide security support to the Iraqi security forces,” English said.
The move away from cities, perhaps eventually accompanied by U.S. force reductions, will lower the profile of U.S. troops, frequent targets of roadside bombs on city streets. Officers at Al-Asad Air Base, 10 desert miles from the nearest town, say it hasn’t been hit by insurgent fire since October.
Al-Asad will become even more isolated. The proposed 2006 supplemental budget for Iraq operations would provide $7.4 million to extend the no-man’s-land and build security fencing around the base, which at 19 square miles is so large that many assigned there take the bus to get around the base, or buy bicycles at a PX jammed with customers.
At Tallil, besides the new $14 million dining facility, Ali Air Base is to get, for $22 million, a double perimeter fence with high-tech gate controls, guard towers and a moat — in military parlance, a “vehicle entrapment ditch with berm.”
At Balad, the former Iraqi air force academy 40 miles north of Baghdad, the two 12,000-foot runways have become the logistics hub for all U.S. military operations in Iraq, and major upgrades began last year.
Army engineers say 31,000 truckloads of sand and gravel fed nine concrete-mixing plants on Balad, as contractors laid a $16 million ramp to park the Air Force’s huge C-5 cargo planes; an $18 million ramp for workhorse C-130 transports; and the vast, $28 million main helicopter ramp.
Turkish builders are pouring tons more concrete for a fourth ramp beside the runways, for medical-evacuation and other aircraft on alert. And $25 million was approved for other “pavement projects,” from a special road for munitions trucks to a compound for special forces.
The chief Air Force engineer here, Lt. Col. Scott Hoover, is also overseeing two crucial projects to add to Balad’s longevity: equipping the two runways with new permanent lighting, and replacing a weak 3,500-foot section of one runway.
Once that’s fixed, “we’re good for as long as we need to run it,” Hoover said.
Ten years? he was asked. “I’d say so.”