Why We Can't See America's Ziggurats in Iraq

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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 emails 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 here.

The Greatest Story Never Told
Finally, the U.S. Mega-Bases in Iraq Make the News

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 28th to Wintara, Inc. of Fort Washington, Maryland, 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 January 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.

Building Ziggurats

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 air-field 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.”

Think 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 2003.

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 “Camp Cupcake” 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 stop-overs, never pans across the base itself. You don’t even get a glimpse, unless you have access to homemade G.I. videos or Pentagon-produced propaganda.

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 Iraq.

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 concurred.

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 twentieth 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 nineteenth 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 nation.

Now, imagine, that, even after years of disaster, even in a state of discontrol, with unsecured 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 200 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 threatening 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 ten years.” This was partially confirmed by the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, who reported 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 leased 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 losers.

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 Shiite or Sunni, seems to be following 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 file) 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.”

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] who runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture, has recently been updated in a newly issued edition. He edited, and his work appears in, the first best of TomDispatch book, The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso), which is being published this month.

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