Agence France-Presse

Iraq: breaking up is never easy


FORWARD OPERATING BASE QAYYARAH WEST, Iraq — The “consolidation yard” at Contingency Operating Base Qayyrarah West, better known as Q-West, is the size of a football field, and surrounded by steel shipping containers stacked two high, their paint fading under the desert sun. The base is slated to be closed this summer and transferred to the Iraqi government, as the U.S. cuts its number of troops in Iraq by nearly half, from 95,000 to 50,000, by Sept. 1.

The U.S. military has already handed over dozens of forward operating bases, or FOBs, since American troops began pulling out of Iraqi cities last June. Earlier last year, the Iraqi military assumed responsibility for security in the Green Zone — the first time the bulk of the nation’s government buildings, ministries and monuments were secured by Iraqis since before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

There are still about 200 American bases, outposts and security facilities in Iraq, down from more than 300 at the peak of the U.S. troop surge in early 2008. Fourteen forward operating bases are in northern Iraq and many of them will be closed by Aug. 31.

As the Iraq bases are closed down, bases in Afghanistan are being built up, with many of the items being shipped straight there. Already, air assets and vehicles have been sent to Afghanistan to provide for the 30,000 U.S. surge troops arriving this spring.

In preparation for the transfer of Q-West to Iraqi control, all U.S. military units based here are cleaning out their storage rooms. Everything they don’t need they drop off to this yard to be sifted through by the military logistics team. Consolidation yards, like the one at Q West, are where soldiers tasked with dismantling the bases begin sifting through the detritus of seven years of war.

An olive green forklift moves white cardboard boxes filled with phones and fax machines, tires, uniforms, antennas, ammo clips, orange cones, camouflage netting and much more.

“[We’re] getting everything that we have here so we know what we have and we get it out of here as much as possible before actually transferring the base over,” said Sgt. Rob Strain, the public affairs officer.

Much of the gear will be shipped by truck to Al Balad, one of the largest U.S. bases in Iraq, to determine whether it can be reused in Iraq, sent to Afghanistan or sent back to the U.S.

COB Q West is an old Saddam-era Iraqi Air Force base and army barracks. Portraits of Saddam have been chipped away and brushed over, but in some places, his features remain. A mustache gives away the former dictators profile on one building. On another building, “A good soldier is a good Baath Party member” reminds Iraqis who can read the Arabic of the man, and his party, who were in charge not so long ago.

A 2003 Stars and Stripes newspaper reported that when the U.S. Army’s “Bastogne Bulldogs,” of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, arrived here on May 28, 2003, looters had taken all the metal and window from the buildings. Holes from U.S. bombing runs pockmarked the two runways. By July, 2003 the paper had reported that the majority of troops still didn’t have air-conditioning. A rudimentary chow hall served breakfast and dinner, but lunch consisted of Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs. Human waste was burned every evening in steel barrels.

Seven years is a lot of time for improvements. The base is now home to 8,000 troops, a dining facility that seats hundreds, complete with dessert line, TVs (mainly featuring Fox News or ESPN), and a high-end industrial kitchen staffed by dozens of Pakistanis and Indians hired by Kellogg Brown and Root, the company responsible for managing the facility.

Troops live in pre-fabricated air-conditioned living quarters with real beds, called CHUs, which stand for Containerized Housing Unit. Each CHU has internet access (provided by a private company for more than $100 a month) and soldiers shower in hot water in prefabricated bathroom facilities, with 24-hour electricity. Toilets are similarly civilized.

There’s a Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Subway on base, a gym, outdoor theater, sidewalks, shops, and even a dusty golf course, a remnant of a previous unit’s love of the game or sense of humor. The Postal Exchange has the latest DVDs, magazines, CDs, and anything else a typical CVS or Walgreens in the U.S. would sell.

Lt. Col. Paula Lodi and her soldiers from the 15th Special Troops Battalion of the 15th Sustainment Brigade are responsible for dismantling and handing over the base to the Iraqi government this fall. As a combat commander at Q-West put it, Lodi’s battalion will “turn off the lights” on their way out the door.

“Q West is essentially a small city,” Lodi said as she gave GlobalPost a tour of the 20-square-kilometer base. The Massachusetts native, who speaks with a strong southern accent acquired from her years stationed below the Mason Dixon line, pointed to the facilities that will need to be dismantled before the handover: an ammunition dump, water purification facility, aircraft repair hangars and air traffic control tower. The gym and dining facility would remain, she said.

“Unless someone says there’s a need for them, those are likely in the category of things that would be more cost effective to leave,” she said. “The Department of State, Department of Defense, and they all get to look at the list and determine what the need is elsewhere. When get list back, then work on getting that property packed up, loaded and sent out where we’re directed to send it.”

Lodi says “rolling stock,” like Humvees and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, or MRAPs, will be shipped back to Kuwait with individual units as they leave the base. So too will weapons and specialized equipment like radars, communication equipment, computers and spare vehicle parts.

The key to closing down the base is ensuring that no interruption to the combat units still operating out of Q-West until they’ve packed up and left. Lodi says there is a basic blue print for how to close down a base. Q-West isn’t the first to close in Iraq. But she’s proud of how it’s being done.

"We’re not leaving in a hurry — we’re not leaving in a state of chaos,” she said. “We’ve got plan, and we’re executing that plan, and closing out the mission in an organized fashion with a lot of honor and dignity.”

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