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Newsweek April 23, 2006

Balad Air Base in Iraq Evidence That U.S. Planning to Stay For a Long Time; 15-Square-Mile Mini-City One of Four 'Superbases' Where The Pentagon Will Consolidate U.S. Forces

New $592 Million 'Massive' U.S. Embassy Being Built in Baghdad

NEW YORK, April 23 -- Despite all the political debate in Washington about a quick U.S. pullout from Iraq, the vast Balad Air Base, a 15-square-mile mini-city of thousands of trailers and vehicle depots located 43 miles north of Baghdad, is hard evidence that the Pentagon is planning to stay in Iraq for a long time-at least a decade or so, according to military strategists.

With 27,500 landings and takeoffs a month, Balad is second only to London's Heathrow Airport in traffic worldwide, Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, the base commander, tells Newsweek Senior Editor Michael Hirsh in the current issue. In an interview with Newsweek, Gorenc said he's "normalizing" the giant Balad airfield, or gradually rebuilding it to U.S. military specs. The Saddam- era concrete is considered too substandard for the F-16s, C-130s and other aircraft that fly in and out so regularly they crack the tarmac. "It's safe to say Balad will be here for a long time," says Gorenc, who feels at home in Iraqi skies, where the Air Force has been having its way since the first gulf war. "One of the issues of sovereignty for any country is the ability to control their own airspace. We will probably be helping the Iraqis with that problem for a very long time."

Hirsh reports that the Balad Air Base is an image of what America's long- term plans for Iraq look like. It's one of four "superbases" where the Pentagon plans to consolidate U.S. forces, taking them gradually from the front lines of the Iraq war. (Two other bases are slated for the British and Iraqi military.) The shift is part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plan to draw down U.S. ground forces in Iraq significantly by the end of 2006. Sovereignty issues still need to be worked out by mutual, legal agreement. But even as Iraqi politicians settle on a new government after four months of stalemate-on Saturday, they named a new prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki-they are welcoming the long-term U.S. presence, Hirsh reports in the May 1 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, April 24).

There is ample evidence elsewhere of America's long-term plans. The new $592 million U.S. embassy being built at the heart of Baghdad's "international zone" is "massive ... the largest embassy to date," says Maj. Gen. Chuck Williams, head of the State Department's Overseas Building Operations office. In an interview with Newsweek, Williams called it the "most ambitious project" his office has undertaken in its history. Officials in both the executive branch and Congress say they are unaware of any serious planning, or even talk inside the national-security bureaucracy, about a full withdrawal.

Sectarian conflict here has worsened in recent months, outstripping the anti-American insurgency in significance, and many Iraqis know there is no alternative to U.S. troops for the foreseeable future. "I think the presence of the American forces can be seen as an insurance policy for the unity of Iraq," says national-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie.

U.S. officials routinely deny that America intends to put down permanent bases. "A key planning factor in our basing strategy is that there will be no bases in Iraq following Operation Iraqi Freedom," says Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for CENTCOM in Baghdad. "What we have in Iraq are 'contingency bases,' intended to support our operations in Iraq on a temporary basis until OIF is complete." But according to the Congressional Research Service, the Bush administration has asked for more than $1.1 billion for new military construction in Iraq, roughly double what it plans to spend in Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates combined. Of that, the single biggest share is intended for Balad ($231 million).

Technically Colonel Johnson may be telling the truth about the Pentagon's long-term plans. But it is also true that the U.S. government has never drawn up plans for "permanent" military bases, even when it ended up staying for half a century. In Korea, where tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers have been deployed for 55 years since the end of the Korean War, "they're only just now moving American troops out of temporary facilities like huts to real buildings," says John Pike, a Washington security expert. A White House official, asked last week about long-term U.S. plans, himself made the analogy to Asia and to Germany. In every conflict the United States has recently been involved in, except Vietnam, U.S. forces have remained in the country, said the official, who asked for anonymity because the matter is considered sensitive.


Copyright 2006, Newsweek