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Withdrawal or Enduring Presence? US Military Continues to Invest Hundreds of Millions in Iraq Bases

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In his Oval Office address Tuesday night, President Obama said the US had closed or transferred hundreds of bases to the Iraqis. But many US bases remain in Iraq, as well as the massive US embassy in Baghdad, the size of eighty football fields. We play a report on US bases in Iraq by independent journalist Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re going to turn right now to President Obama’s address last night. He said that the US had closed or transferred hundreds of bases to the Iraqis. But many US bases remain in Iraq, as well as the massive US embassy in Baghdad, the size of eighty football fields.

For more on the issue of US bases, we turn to a report by independent journalist Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films. This report originally aired on the program Empire on Al Jazeera English.

    US SOLDIER: We’re going home! We won! It’s over! America! [inaudible] I love you! I love you!

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: Late at night on August 18th, the US Army’s 4th Stryker Brigade crossed the border into Kuwait and publicly celebrated the official end of combat in Iraq.

    US SOLDIER: Good job, guys! Way to go!

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: But with 50,000 combat-ready American troops still in country, the occupation seems far from over.

    ANDREW BACEVICH: The Obama administration will insist that those are not combat soldiers engaged in a combat mission. But if you’ve got twenty or thirty or forty thousand foreign troops stationed on your soil, I mean, if it looks like an occupation, and it smells like an occupation, and it sounds like an occupation, it’s an occupation.

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: The current Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq requires a full US withdrawal and an end to the occupation. And the US military and State Department are busy planning for what they call an “enduring presence” after the treaty’s deadline on December 31st, 2011. But on bases like this one in Balad, Iraq, the military continues to invest hundred of millions in infrastructure improvements, and it is difficult to imagine them fully abandoning everything they are building here.

    COL. SAL NODJOMIAN: Joint Base Balad is approximately ten square miles, which equates to about 6,500 acres. To put that in relative terms, Andrews Air Force Base, which is right outside DC, is about 20 percent smaller than that. And we don’t even have golf courses here, so that kind of puts it in perspective of how big that is. We have about 28,000 people who call Joint Base Balad home.

    This is the rec center on the backside of these T-walls.

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: US Air Force Colonel Sal Nodjomian takes us on a tour of what is essentially a small American city, complete with three large gyms, multiple shopping centers, recreation areas and a movie theater. In 2003, military planners expected to keep Balad as a long-term air base. While smaller US outposts are closing down around the country, Balad keeps expanding. And some in the military still believe that the US Air Force will remain here past the 2012 deadline.

    COL. SAL NODJOMIAN: Our senior leadership is studying options to draw down our presence here in Iraq. Joint Base Balad is one of the bases that’s often talked about as one of the more semi-permanent or strategic overwatch bases.

    ANDREW BACEVICH: My guess is that the US government and the Iraqi government will find some way of finessing this promise to close down US bases. You know, we’ve had Air Force bases in the United Kingdom for the last half-century. They’re not called US Air Force bases. They’re called Royal Air Force bases. But they’re owned, lock, stock and barrel, by the United States Air Force. So there are ways — ways to work around what might seem like an airtight commitment.

    COL. SAL NODJOMIAN: If an agreement is reached, and the Iraqis ask us to stay or invite us to stay, in whatever capacity, whether it’s a training capacity or a collocative capacity, then that’s something that can be — that’ll be decided.

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: It remains to be seen whether conventional US forces will stay in some of these massive bases. But there are some troops who definitely plan to be here after the withdrawal deadline. Forty-five hundred members of elite special operations forces will train Iraqis and cooperate on counterterrorism missions.

    BRIG. GEN. SIMEON TROMBITAS: We have advisers that work with the whole chain of INCTF.

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: Brigadier General Simeon Trombitas shows us a training exercise of Iraq’s counterterrorism force that his men train and work with. He says that they spend most of their day side by side with Iraqi officers.

    BRIG. GEN. SIMEON TROMBITAS: Throughout the world and in this region, special forces are — you know, we’re special because we do maintain a relationship with foreign forces. There will be a working relationship for a while.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: The United States is going to continue to train Iraqi special operations forces. What this essentially amounts to is an Iraqization of the US occupation.

    BRIG. GEN. SIMEON TROMBITAS: We maintain that relationship so we, you know, impart our values and maintain those values. And the longer we work together, the more liked we are.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: What this means is that the United States can say, “We don’t have a military occupation in Iraq,” while at the same time having US military forces effectively directing forces that are masquerading as indigenous but in reality amount to basic proxy forces for the United States.

    JACQUIE SOOHEN: In addition to several thousand special operations forces and an unknown number of Air Force personnel, the US State Department has announced that it will hire an army of as many as 7,000 mercenaries to be deployed on five enduring presence posts across Iraq.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Yes, a lot of US military forces are going to be leaving the country, but what we’re seeing happen right now, the US State Department is beginning a militarization of its operations in Iraq. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked for a doubling of the number of armed private security contractors in the country. The State Department has also put in a request from the Pentagon for military-grade equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters, armored vehicles. What we’re seeing in Iraq right now is a downsizing and a rebranding of the US occupation.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill. That report filed by Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films.

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