Dug in to "Super-Bases"... with No Plans to Leave
by John Burdick

US Army soldiers tie down the blades on a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at Balad Air Base, Iraq, June 13, 2006. U.S. Air Force photo: Airman 1st Class Andrew Oquendo

In early June it seemed for a few days that Congress was actually doing its job. Both Houses had agreed to an amendment preventing the use of any funds from a $90 billion war spending bill to build permanent military bases in Iraq.

Then, on June 9, in the middle of the night, a joint Senate-House conference committee quietly killed the amendment. According to Barbara Lee, the House Democrat who had introduced the measure, the Republicans on the conference committee simply buckled under backroom pressure from the White House.

Reality on the Ground

That the White House sought to defeat any effort to complicate its military base strategy in Iraq should surprise no one. Despite the administration's occasional public assurances that "there is no plan" to build permanent bases in Iraq, the reality on the ground tells the true story. Some 12-14 US bases have already been developed. All evidence indicates that the Pentagon has no intention of handing over the largest of these to the Iraqis. Instead, it plans to keep them in US hands for decades, maybe even generations to come.

The proof of these plans is not just the sheer amount of money - $4.5 billion and counting - invested so far in building and maintaining the bases. The official line, after all, is that all those barracks and airstrips and water purification plants are simply a big US investment in Iraq's eventually independent military capacity. But the devil is in the details.

When one looks closely, it becomes clear that the US is creating a two-tiered base system. In a hundred or so medium-sized bases, the Pentagon is making medium-sized investments, and handing the bases over to the Iraqis. But the US is making super-sized investments in "super-bases" - Tallil in the south, Al Asad in the west, Balad in the center and Qayyarah in the north. These bases are specifically designed not to service the Iraqis, but to provide long-term staging platforms for the US military.

Why Such Bases?

These super bases have been designed to do three things: accommodate enormous numbers of troops; concentrate on air power; and keep their occupants isolated from Iraqi society. These features are useful to the US, not Iraq.

The base at Balad, for example, already the beneficiary of a quarter billion US taxpayer dollars, is currently completing a $7-million post office, designed to receive huge quantities of international mail. Gargantuan airstrips have been built to accommodate mammoth USC-130 personnel transports and giant C-5 cargo planes. Iraq neither possesses such aircraft, nor - as indicated by declassified US Air Force documents - is it likely to, since the US has no plans to support the development of an independent Iraqi air force.

Balad is surrounded by a forbidding 12.4 mile long, 13 foot high fence whose main function is to ensure that troops do not encounter Iraqis. This is hardly a base designed for the Iraqi military. Meanwhile, at Tallil in the south, $110 million has already been spent on a dining hall to feed between 6,000 to 12,000 troops, and a center whose only purpose is to receive supplies from Kuwait (such a center only makes logical military sense from a US, not Iraqi standpoint).

Now while Rumsfeld et al avoid mentioning these facts, officers closer to the ground are less circumspect. Col. Mark W. Yenter, an engineer with Multinational Corps-Iraq, informed journalist Bradley Graham that the four super-bases "were chosen to enable US forces to maintain a foothold in various regions of Iraq." "We didn't want to pick places that are too near Iraqi population centers," he said, "but we did want ones that would still allow us to influence an area and give us some power projection capability."

Other top brass are also quite candid about the strategic goals of keeping big US bases in Iraq indefinitely. Gen. John Abizaid informed a House of Representatives subcommittee this March that permanent bases had to be considered because the "United States and its allies have a vital interest in the oil-rich region ... Ultimately it comes down to the free flow of goods and resources on which the prosperity of our own nation and everybody else in the world depend."

Maintaining US Control
Map: Revised by Andy Mager and John Burdick from www.globalresearch.ca. The four stars represent the “Super Bases”: Tallil in the south, Al Asad in the west, Balad in the center and
Qayyarah in the north.

The bases support other strategic goals as well. One such goal is to ensure that a government friendly to the US remains in power. A US intelligence officer in Baghdad explained to a journalist that "maintaining a quick reaction force in Iraq would be essential to prevent, for example, a coup against a friendly Iraqi government."

Most fundamentally, the bases provide a staging platform for rapid US deployment anywhere in the region. One analyst stated that Pentagon planners view the bases as "launchpads for operations in Syria and Iran." None of this is a secret. A recent congressional study explicitly identified US-controlled bases in Iraq as a means to create "anti-ballistic defenses" against Iran.

Paul D. Hughes, a government agent and planner, regards US (not Iraqi) bases as a major geopolitical "deterrent" to Iran. Brig. General Robert Pollman sees the maintenance of US control over key bases in Iraq as crucial to preserving a regional US presence to counter Iran, and therefore as a neat "swap" for the bases vacated by the US in Saudi Arabia.

Most significantly, if Iraq's Shi'a government becomes cozier with Iran, as US military planners increasingly fear, they are less and less inclined to place more military capability into Iraqi hands. In fact, it is precisely the threat of this coziness that already justified in the minds of some the never-ending stationing of US troops in Iraq. Thus Gordon Adams of George Washington University states quite simply that "at the level of strategy it makes total sense to have Iraq bases."

All of this explains the huge investment in US super-bases in Iraq. Establishing long-term bases in Iraq was in fact always one of the major objectives of the US invasion. Army Lt. General Jay Garner stated as early as February 2004 that a US military presence in Iraq would last "the next few decades;" in December 2004, Donald Rumsfeld declared that he expected US troops to remain in Iraq until at least 2009; and George W Bush has stated recently that a complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq would not occur during his term.

It is possible that Congress may eventually pass some kind of "no bases" amendment to future war spending bills. Indeed, as this comes to press, Joe Biden is once again stirring the amendment pot. But it is important to push Congress to pass a measure that calls not for "no permanent bases," but for "no US bases at all." Of course, whatever the language of the law, there is little reason to believe that Bush and his friends will allow legal niceties to get in their way.

John teaches Anthropology at Syracuse University and directs a program that helps students undertake collaborative research with grassroots activist organizations