BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At the peak of the United States’s war in Iraq, the U.S. military had more than 170,000 troops, 500 bases replete with tents and toilets, kitchens and motor pools, and an airline that flew hundreds of times a day across the country.
Moving day has lasted more than a year.
The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq after nearly nine years of war is believed to be one of the largest removal jobs in history. At the start of the year logistics experts calculated there were nearly 3 million pieces of equipment to be moved, from airplanes, helicopters and tanks to laptops and lights.
“It is the largest move of military equipment we have done since World War Two,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Brooks, a U.S. military historian.
Soldiers, trucks and weaponry are streaming out of Iraq every day. From that peak of 170,000 troops, about 18,000 remain this week, with hundreds leaving daily. Virtually all will be gone before Christmas.
Since September 2010, around 2 million pieces of equipment have been redeployed, U.S. officials say, some back to the United States, others to Afghanistan or other locations.
By September 1, the clutter had been reduced to about 20,000 truckloads. This week, about 9,000 truckloads remained.
“It’s not as glamorous as it was when you’re out on patrol in a village, helping some young Iraqi, or building a school or capturing a terrorist. But it’s historic,” said Brigadier General Bradley Becker of the move out.
“Someday I truly believe that future military classes ... will study the logistics (of our) move out of Iraq.”
Closing down the Iraq war has meant shutting down the U.S. military bases, which numbered 505 at the peak and included everything from small desert fueling depots to massive installations where Americans have been entrenched for years.
The Victory Base complex in Baghdad, the heart of the war operation surrounded by 42 km (27 miles) of concrete blast walls and razor wire, once hosted 40,000 troops and more than 20,000 contractors. Balad, north of Baghdad, had 36,000 residents.
Victory was so big it had a reverse osmosis water plant that could generate 1.85 million gallons a day, an ice plant, a 50-megawatt power generating station, stadium-sized chow halls and a laundromat with 3,000 machines able to do 36,000 loads a day.
Now the generals have moved from Saddam’s missile-damaged palaces, the war operations room has been cleared of computers and phones and the barber shops, DVD stores and restaurants like Burger King, Subway and Green Bean are fast disappearing.
For years, in U.S. air terminals across Iraq, on flat-screen monitors or white boards, generals and soldiers, journalists and contractors watched for flight information to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport), Tikrit, Mosul or other destinations.
Between combat, medical evacuations and ferry service, the U.S. intra-Iraq airline flew scores of times every day.
At the peak in 2009, there more than 400 aircraft which flew daily, Brooks said.
“The MNC-I Aviation brigade averaged 157 missions a day. We had 28 helicopters devoted to just flying passengers around Iraq on scheduled flights.”
Joint Base Balad, with two 11,000-foot runways, had 27,500 takeoffs and landings a month in 2006, second only to London’s Heathrow, U.S. officials said.
For months, a steady stream of tanks, troop carriers, artillery and other gear has flowed from remote bases to collection yards in Baghdad and elsewhere, and then out of the country, mostly to Kuwait.
One U.S. military officer said logistics experts had estimated there was $7.8 billion worth of “theater-provided equipment” — the tanks, trucks, tables and chairs and other things the soldiers don’t carry themselves — to move.
On a single day, the dusty yard at Victory Base held 186 HumVees, 22 MRAPs, four M-1 Abrams tanks, eight Paladin Howitzer artillery systems, four Stryker fighting vehicles and scores of generators, lighting systems and other gear.
U.S. record-keepers itemize everything, including the equipment to be left behind. About a quarter of the gear, mainly HumVees, radios and weapons, was headed to Afghanistan.
At big bases like Victory, buildings, mess halls, offices, water treatment and electrical plants, Containerized Housing Units (CHUs), desks, tables and chairs, are being handed over to the Iraq government, and tons of equipment is being scrapped.
In many cases, the cost of moving something wasn’t worth it. In others, the equipment wasn’t worth it.
“A lot of the computers we’ve been using for the last eight years ... the guts are ripped out,” said 1st Lieutenant Michael Saslo, logistics coordinator at the yard. “There’s no point putting those on a convoy and risking a soldier’s life for it.”
By early November, nearly 4 million items worth $390 million had been given to Iraq, including 26,000 CHUs worth $124 million and 89,000 air conditioners worth $18.5 million. Logisticians said they had saved taxpayers $685 million in transport costs.
“We don’t ship toilets,” said one soldier.
The exception appeared to be Saddam Hussein’s toilet, taken from the Victory Base cell where he was held for two years and destined for display in a U.S. military museum.
Reporting by Jim Loney; Editing by Angus MacSwan