Tuesday, March 16, 2010
As Iraq war enters final act, US readies for exodus of men and machines
Each night, in a giant base north of Baghdad, a team that moves armies for a living prepares for a mission that will define America's time in Iraq, more than any other act since the invasion seven years ago. Leading them is the senior American officer who will orchestrate the military withdrawal, a man who claims he has one of the highest job satisfaction levels in the country. "I have the best job in Iraq right now," says Brigadier General Paul Wentz, of the US military's 13th Sustainment Command. "There is no question about it." Whether that assessment is a reflection of the fraught earlier years of the occupation, or the imminent end of an increasingly unpopular war, or the fact that his staff have prepared so well that they can't fail, is open to conjecture. Either way, the men and women of the 13th Sustainment Command are raring to begin the biggest movement of troops and machines anywhere in the world since Vietnam, more than 40 years ago. The order to do so will probably come within 60 days of a result being declared from Iraq's recent general election. The count of votes is painstakingly slow – only around 65% of ballots had been counted more than a week after polling day on 7 March. But if, as the Obama White House hopes, the result is eventually deemed to be credible, the US commander-in-chief will call an end to the war that he has previously described as "dumb". As soon as Wentz receives the call from the commanding US general in Iraq, Ray Odierno, a massive network of trucks, planes and ships will start to evacuate around 45,000 troops and more than 1m tonnes of equipment, ranging from super-sized bulldozers to water coolers, as well as hundreds of different types of machines and weapons that were used to fight and run the war. The pullout looms as quite a payday for the Iraqi army. Late last year the US government set a cap of $30m worth of equipment that commanders can leave behind at each facility – a 15-fold increase from when guidelines were first written five years ago. A total of 31m items will be packed and stacked, including 43,000 military vehicles, 600-odd helicopters, 120,000 containers and 34,000 tonnes of ammunition. Shipping out is estimated to take 240,000 truckloads and 119 shipping freighters. The withdrawal will leave only 50,000 US troops in Iraq by 30 August, none of them in combat roles, and reduce the number of bases from 290 to fewer than 10. Even with the remaining US presence, the withdrawal will probably be perceived, in Iraq and elsewhere, as the final act of the war. It is a milestone Wentz is acutely aware of. "This will be a chapter in history and we will really try to make sure it's a good chapter in history," he says from an anteroom on the giant Balad airbase, near where his charges are still co-ordinating the movements of more than 3,000 US vehicles throughout Iraq each day. "Our guys are still busy and we like to feel we are making a difference. Success for us will be if we wake up in September and nobody knows we have gone." That may be the benchmark inside Iraq, where people long ago started to rail against the enormous, slow-moving American convoys that used to snarl traffic, and the often interminable delays at checkpoints manned by US soldiers. But, in the US, another key indicator is more important – not repeating the mistakes of the last American withdrawal from Iraq, in 1991. That pullout was blighted by delays, equipment losses and incompetence, and has since been seen as a case study of how not to do things. "We have learned a lot since then," says Wentz. "We don't have those Indiana Jones warehouses that nobody knows what's inside. "A lot of the bad things that came out of the first Gulf war have been fixed. We have introduced a lot of technology. This is very important to the American taxpayer. We have to be fiscally responsible and good stewards of government monies." Although the bulk of the heavy lifting is yet to begin, tanks and giant military trucks known as MRAPS are already on the move, some of the pieces leaving Iraq with the units they arrived with and others being readied for another war. "The equipment will be going south and will most likely be reworked in Kuwait and sent to the folks in Afghanistan," said Wentz. "Some of the containers will go out through the port of Aqaba in Jordan and also the port of Umm Qasr. Each month we are getting rid of more and more capacity, but, so far, they are largely component parts that have built up over the years." The preparation for the big move has been dubbed Operation Clean Sweep. Most troops will fly out of Iraq into Kuwait, where they will connect with a well-established military flight network back to America. Iraq's main roads are safer now, but the military still prefers to keep as many troops as possible away from the 10-hour drive south to Kuwait. The main thoroughfare down the spine of Iraq, known as Route Tampa, was built to move armies. The four-lane sealed highway was constructed by Saddam Hussein to move his troops and machines to the Iranian front and home again. It also gave him a direct route to Kuwait. The US and British armies used Route Tampa to get to Baghdad in 2003. And American convoys have continued to use it ever since, despite being extensively targeted by militants who launched ambushes and detonated countless roadside bombs from sand berms that line the roads. Captain Jason Vivian from the 80th Ordinance Battalion, based in Pennsylvania, is in charge of a clearing yard on the Balad base which will become one of the busiest hubs in Iraq when Odierno's move order is handed down. To him, getting the withdrawal rolling is the pinnacle of a career. "This is why I joined the military," he says, standing between cranes and rows of heavy armour. "The surge and the invasion were both important, especially for a logistician, but this to me is what it's all about."