It's just a $5,812,353 contract chump change
for the Pentagon and not even one of those notorious "no-bid" contracts either.
Ninety-eight bids were solicited by the Army Corps of Engineers and 12 were
received before the contract was awarded this May 28 to Wintara, Inc. of Fort
Washington, Md., for "replacement facilities for Forward Operating Base Speicher,
Iraq." According to a Department of Defense press
release, the work on those "facilities" to be replaced at the
base near Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, is expected to be completed
by Jan. 31, 2009, a mere 11 days after a new president enters the Oval Office.
It is but one modest reminder that, when the next administration hits Washington,
American bases in Iraq, large and small, will still be undergoing the sort
of repair and upgrading that has been ongoing for years.
In fact, in the last five-plus years, untold billions of taxpayer dollars
have been spent on the construction and upgrading of those bases. When asked
back in the fall of 2003, only months after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops, Lt.
Col. David Holt, the Army engineer then "tasked with facilities development"
in Iraq, proudly indicated that "several billion dollars" had already
been invested in those fast-rising bases. Even then, he was suitably amazed,
commenting that "the numbers are staggering." Imagine what he might have said,
barely two and a half years later, when the U.S. reportedly had 106
bases, mega to micro, all across the country.
By now, billions have evidently gone into single massive mega-bases like
the U.S. air base at Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. It's a "16-square-mile
fortress," housing perhaps 40,000 U.S. troops, contractors, special ops types,
and Defense Department employees. As the Washington Post's Tom Ricks,
who visited Balad back
in 2006, pointed out in a rare piece on one of our mega-bases it's
essentially "a small American town smack in the middle of the most hostile
part of Iraq." Back then, air traffic at the base was already being compared
to Chicago's O'Hare International or London's Heathrow and keep in mind that
Balad has been steadily upgraded ever since to support an "air surge" that,
unlike the president's 2007 "surge" of 30,000 ground troops, has yet to end.
While American reporters seldom think these bases
the most essential U.S. facts on the ground in Iraq are important to report
on, the military press regularly writes about them with pride. Such pieces
offer a tiny window into just how busily the Pentagon is working to upgrade
and improve what are already state-of-the-art garrisons. Here's just a taste
of what's been going on recently at Balad, one of the largest bases on foreign
soil on the planet, and but one of perhaps five mega-bases in that country.
Consider, for instance, this description
of an airfield upgrade from official U.S. Air Force news coverage, headlined:
"'Dirt Boyz' Pave Way for Aircraft, Airmen":
"In less than four months, Balad Air Base Dirt Boyz have placed and finished
more than 12,460 feet of concrete and added approximately 90,000 square feet
of pavement to the airfield.
Without the extra pavement courtesy of the Dirt
Boyz, fewer aircraft would be able to be positioned and maintained at Balad
AB. Having fewer aircraft at the base would directly affect the Air Force's
ability to place surveillance assets in the air and to drop munitions on targets.
The ongoing flightline projects at Balad AB consist of concrete pad extensions
that will provide occupation surfaces for multiple aircraft of various types."
Or here's a proud
description of what Detachment 6 of the 732nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer
Squadron did on its recent tour in Balad:
"'We constructed more than 25,000 square feet of living, dining,
and operations buildings from the ground up,' said Staff Sgt. John Wernegreen.
'This project gave the [U.S.] Army's [3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment]
and Iraqi army [soldiers] a place to carry out their mission of controlling
the battlespace around the Eastern Diyala Province.'"
And here's a caption,
accompanying an Air Force photo of work at Balad: "Airmen of the 407th Expeditionary
Civil Engineer Squadron pavement and equipment team repair utility cuts here
June 11. The team replaced approximately 30 cubic meters of concrete over newly
installed power line cables." And another:
"Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron heavy equipment operator, contours a
new sidewalk here, June 10. Sidewalk repair is being accomplished throughout
the base housing area to eliminate tripping hazards." (The sidewalks on such
bases go with bus routes, traffic lights, and speeding tickets in a country
parts of which the U.S. has helped turn into little more than a giant pothole.)
Or how about this
caption for a photo of military men on upgrade duty working on copper cable
as "part of the new tents to trailers project." It's little wonder that, in
another rare piece, NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz reported,
in October 2007, that Balad was "one giant construction project, with new roads,
sidewalks, and structures going up
all with an eye toward the next few decades."
of this as the greatest American story of these years never told or more
accurately, since there have been a few reports on a couple of these mega-bases
never shown. After all, what an epic of construction this has been,
as the Pentagon built a series of fortified American towns, each some 15 to
20 miles around, with many of the amenities of home, including big name fast-food
franchises, PXes, and the like, in a hostile land in the midst of war and occupation.
In terms of troops, the president may only have put his "surge" strategy into
play in January
2007, but his Pentagon has been "surging" on base construction since April
Now, imagine as well that hundreds of thousands of Americans have passed through
these mega-bases, including the enormous al-Asad Air Base (sardonically nicknamed
for its amenities) in the Western desert of Iraq, and the ill-named (or never
renamed) Camp Victory on the edge of Baghdad. Troops have surged through these
bases, of course. Private contractors galore. Hired guns. Pentagon officials.
Military commanders. Top administration figures. Visiting congressional delegations.
Presidential candidates. And, of course, the journalists.
It has been, for instance, a commonplace of these years to see a TV correspondent
reporting on the situation in Iraq, or what the American military had to say
about Iraq, from Baghdad's enormous Camp Victory. And yet, if you think about
it, that camera, photographing ABC's fine reporter Martha Raddatz or other
reporters on similar stopovers, never pans across the base itself. You don't
even get a glimpse, unless you have access to homemade GI videos or Pentagon-produced
Similarly, last year, the president landed
at Camp Cupcake for a meeting
with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with reporters in tow. You could
see shots of him getting off the plane (just as he does everywhere), goofing
around with troops, or shaking hands with the Iraqi prime minister but, as
far as I know, none of the reporters with him stayed on to give us a view of
the base itself.
Imagine if just about no one knew that the pyramids had been built. Ditto
the Great Wall of China. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Coliseum. The
Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. Or any other architectural wonder of the
world you'd care to mention.
After all, these giant bases, rising from the smashed birthplace of Western
civilization, were not only built on (and sometimes
out of bits of) the ancient ruins of that land, but are functionally modern
ziggurats. They are the
cherished monuments of the Bush administration. Even though its spokespeople
have regularly refused to use the word "permanent"
in relation to them in fact, in relation to any U.S. base on the planet
they have been built to long outlast the Bush administration itself. They were,
in fact, clearly meant to be key garrisons of a Pax Americana in the
Middle East for generations to come. And, not surprisingly, they reek of permanency.
They are the unavoidable essence unless, like most Americans, you don't know
they're there of Bush administration planning in Iraq. Without them, no discussion
of Iraq policy in this country really makes sense.
And that, of course, is what makes their missing-in-action quality on the
American landscape so striking. Yes, a couple of good American reporters have
written pieces about one or two of them, but most Americans, as we know, get
their news from television and though no one can watch all the news that
flows, 24/7, into American living rooms, it's a reasonable bet that a staggering
percentage of Americans have never had the opportunity to see the remarkable
structures their tax dollars have paid for, and continue to pay for, in occupied
This is the sort of thing you might expect of Bush-style offshore prisons,
or gulags, or concentration camps. And yet Americans have regularly and repeatedly
seen what Guantanamo looks like. They have seen something of what Abu Ghraib
prison in Iraq looks like. But not the bases. Perhaps one explanation lies
in this: On rare occasions when Americans are asked by pollsters whether they
want "permanent bases" in Iraq, significant majorities answer in the negative.
You can only assume that, as on many other subjects, the Bush administration
preferred to fly under the radar screen on this one and the media generally
And let's remember one more base, though it's never called that: the massive
imperial embassy, perhaps the biggest on the planet, being built, for nearly
three-quarters of a billion dollars, on a nearly Vatican-sized 104-acre
plot of land inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. It will be home to 1,000 "diplomats."
It will cost an estimated $1.2
billion a year just to operate. With its own electricity and water systems,
its anti-missile defenses, recreation, "retail and shopping" areas, and "blast-resistant"
work spaces, it is essentially a fortified citadel, a base inside the fortified
American heart of the Iraq capital. Like the mega-bases, it emits an aura of
American, not Iraqi, "sovereignty." It, too, is being built "for the ages."
A Land Grab, American-Style
The issue of the mega-bases in Iraq first surfaced
barely days after Baghdad had fallen. It was on April 20, 2003, to be exact,
and on the front-page of the New York Times in a piece headlined,
"Pentagon Expects Long-Term Access to Key Iraq Bases." Thom Shanker and Eric
Schmitt wrote: "American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke
of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future,"
including what became Camp Victory. The story, and the very idea of "permanent"
bases, was promptly denied by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld then essentially
disappeared from the news for years. (To this day, again as far as I know,
the New York Times has never written another significant front-page
story on the subject.)
Now, however, the bases are, suddenly and startlingly, in the news (and,
of course, being written about and discussed
on TV as if they had long been part of everyday media analysis). This week,
in fact, they hit the front
page of the Washington Post, due to protests by Iraqi leaders close
to the Bush administration. They were angered by, and leaking like mad about,
American strong-arm tactics in negotiations for a long-term Status of Forces
Agreement (SOFA) that would officially embed American-controlled bases in Iraq
for the long-term, potentially tie the hands of a future American president
on Iraq policy, and represent a sovereignty grab of the first order. (A typical
comment from a pro-Maliki Iraqi politician in that Post piece: "The
Americans are making demands that would lead to the colonization of Iraq
The growing Iraqi protests in the streets, in parliament, and among the
negotiators certainly helped spark coverage in this country. A persistent
and intrepid British reporter, Patrick
Cockburn of The Independent, helpfully broke the story of Bush administration
demands days before it became significant news here.
But most of the credit should really go to the Bush administration itself,
which, despite the long-term flow of events in Iraq, still wanted it all. Greed,
coupled with desperation, seems to have done the trick. In all the years of
the occupation, the officials of this administration have had a tin ear for
the post-colonial era they inhabit. It's never penetrated their consciousness
that the greatest story of the 20th century was the way previously subjected
and colonized peoples had gained (or regained) their sovereignty.
The administration indicated this, back in 2003, with its very dream of garrisoning
a major, potentially hostile, intensely nationalistic Arab nation in the heart
of the oil lands of the planet. That the building of enormous American bases
and the basing of troops in relatively peaceful Saudi Arabia after the First
Gulf War led to disaster think: Osama bin Laden mattered not a whit to
top administration officials.
It couldn't have been clearer just how little they cared for Iraqi sovereignty
or pride when L. Paul Bremer III, George W. Bush's personal representative
and viceroy in Baghdad, before officially "returning sovereignty" to the Iraqis
in June 2004, signed the infamous (though, in this country, little noted) Order
17. As the law of the land in Iraq, among other things, it ensured that
all foreigners involved in the occupation project would be granted "freedom
of movement without delay throughout Iraq," and neither their vessels, nor
their vehicles, nor their aircraft would be "subject to registration, licensing,
or inspection by the [Iraqi] government." Nor in traveling would foreign diplomats,
soldiers, consultants, security guards, or any of their vehicles, vessels,
or planes be subject to "dues, tolls, or charges, including landing and parking
fees," and so on.
When it came to imports, including "controlled substances," there were to
be no customs fees or inspections, taxes, or much of anything else; nor was
there to be the slightest charge for the use of Iraqi "headquarters, camps,
and other premises" occupied, nor for the use of electricity, water, or other
utilities. And all private contractors were to have total immunity from prosecution
anywhere in the country. This was, of course, freedom as theft. Order 17 would
have seemed familiar to any 19th-century European colonialist. It granted what
used to be termed "extraterritoriality"
to Americans. Think of it as a giant get-out-of-jail-free card for an occupying
Now, imagine, that, even after years of disaster, even in a state of discontrol,
global oil supplies surging toward $140 a barrel, the Bush administration
remained in the same Order 17 frame of mind. They began their negotiations
with the Iraqis accordingly. Cockburn (and other journalists subsequently)
would report that they were asking for Order 17-style immunity for the U.S.
military and all private contractors in the country, as well as the use of
up to 58 bases, even though they evidently "only"
had 30 major ones in the country. (A leading politician of the Badr Organization
claimed that American negotiators were actually pushing for the use of a startling
facilities across the country.)
They also evidently insisted on control over Iraqi air space up to 29,000
feet, the right to bring troops in and out of the country without informing
the Iraqis, and the right to "conduct military operations in Iraq and to detain
individuals when necessary for imperative reasons of security," again without
notification to the Iraqis, no less approval of any sort. They may even have
insisted on the freedom to strike other countries from their Iraqi bases,
again without consultation or approval. In addition, reported Cockburn, they
were attempting to force their Iraqi counterparts to agree to such a deal by
to deny them at least $20 billion in Iraqi oil funds on deposit in the Federal
Reserve Bank of New York.
Gulf News reported
as well that, under the American version of the agreement, "Iraqi security
institutions such as Defense, Interior, and National Security Ministries, as
well as armament contracts, will be under American supervision for 10 years."
This was partially confirmed by the Washington Post's Walter Pincus,
on a multi-year contract just awarded to a private contractor by the Pentagon
to supply "mentors to officials with Iraq's Defense and Interior ministries
[ who] would 'advise, train [and] assist
particular Iraqi officials.'"
Had the Bush administration exhibited the slightest constraint, they might
have constructed a far more cosmetic version of the permanent garrisoning of
Iraq. They might have officially turned the mega-bases over to the Iraqis and
them back for next to nothing. They could have let the stunning facts they
had built on the ground speak for themselves. They could have offered "joint
commands" and other palliative remedies (as they are now evidently considering
doing) that would have made their long-term sovereignty grab look far less
significant without necessarily being so. But their ability to strategize
outside the (Bush) box has long been limited.
Think of them as "the me generation" on steroids, going global and imperial.
Or give them credit for consistency. They're mad dreamers who still can't wake
up, even when they find themselves in a roomful of smelling salts.
Instead, with their secret SOFA negotiations, they've attempted to fly under
the radar screens of both the U.S. Congress and the Iraqi people. They wanted
to embed permanent bases and a long-term policy of occupation in Iraq in perpetuity
without letting the matter rise to the level of a treaty. (Hence, no advice
and consent from the U.S. Senate.)
Not surprisingly, this episode, too, is threatening to end in debacle. The
Iraqi leadership is in virtual revolt. Across the political spectrum, as Tony
Karon of the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog has written, the negotiations have
forced upon the Iraqis "a kind of snap survey or straw poll
on the long-term
U.S. presence, and goals for Iraq" from which the Americans are likely to emerge
The idea of timetables
for American departure is again being floated in Iraq. According to Reuters,
"A majority of the Iraqi parliament has written to Congress rejecting a long-term
security deal with Washington if it is not linked to a requirement that U.S.
forces leave," and unnamed
American officials are now beginning to mutter about no SOFA deal being
achieved before the Bush administration leaves office.
The administration's man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki, has declared
the initial U.S. proposal at a "dead
end" and has even begun threatening to ask American forces to
leave when their UN mandate expires at year's end. (Though much of this
may be bluff on his part, what choice does he have? Given Iraqi attitudes toward
being garrisoned forever by the U.S. military, no Iraqi leader could remain
in a position of even passing power and agree to such terms. It would be like
stamping and sealing your own execution order.)
The Sadrists are in the streets protesting the American presence and their
leader has just called for a "new
militia offensive" against U.S. forces. The pro-Iranian, but American-backed,
Badrists are outraged.
("Is there sovereignty for Iraq or isn't there? If it is left to [the Bush
administration], they would ask for immunity even for the American dogs.")
The Iranians are vehemently
voting no. Opinion in the region, whether Shi'ite or Sunni, seems to be
suit. The U.S. Congress is up in arms, demanding more information and possibly
heading for hearings on the SOFA agreement and the bases. Presidential candidate
Barack Obama has insisted that any deal be submitted to Congress, the very
thing the Bush administration has organized for more than a year to avoid.
And miracle of all miracles, the mainstream media is finally writing about
the bases as if they mattered. Someday, before this is over, all of us may
actually see what was built in our names with our dollars. That will be a shock,
especially when you consider what the Bush administration has proved incapable
of building, or rebuilding, in New Orleans and elsewhere in this country. In
the meantime, the president appears headed for yet another self-inflicted defeat.
[Sources for this piece and further reading: In his recent articles,
as in his past unembedded reporting, Patrick
Cockburn has shown what a good journalist can still do for the rest of
us. Special thanks go to Nick Turse for his superb and speedy research on this
piece and to Christopher Holmes for superb proofreading on demand. In gathering
material, I've also relied on a number of sites, including Juan Cole's invaluable
Informed Comment blog (which I visit
daily without fail), those splendid hunter-gatherers of the news at Antiwar.com
and Cursor.org's daily Media Patrol, Dan
Froomkin's superb White
House Watch blog in the Washington Post, and sharp-eyed Paul Woodward
at his War in Context blog. For those
of you who want to get a little more sense of the endless base-building activities
of the Bush administration, check out the chatty newsletter
(.pdf) of the Redhorse Association, "a group of past and present members of
the U.S. Air Force Prime Beef and Red Horse combat engineer units."]
[Note for TomDispatch readers: Just a reminder. Today's post on the
mega-bases in Iraq represents but one of the missing stories of the Bush years
that TomDispatch has been dedicated to covering. The site's new book, The
World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire, just
published, is, in essence, a striking history of the missing stories of our
mad age, the stories the mainstream media chose to ignore. I urge TomDispatch
readers to pick up a copy. It's a great way to support the site and if you
care to give it to a friend to introduce others to a source of information
that has, for years, been an "antidote to the mainstream media." If you can,
do recommend the book and the site to your private e-lists and suggest, as
well, that people consider going to TomDispatch.com to sign up in the window
at the upper right of the main screen for the regular e-mails indicating
that a new post has gone up. There will be surprises galore this summer as
TomDispatch explores the Bush legacy and whether what the Bush administration
has embedded in our lives can ever be unbuilt. You can also check out a video
in which I discuss the issue of the missing mega-bases in Iraq, now finally
in the news, by clicking
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt