FORWARD OPERATING BASE GRIZZLY, Iraq - This American military base has garnered the reputation as one of the best-kept secrets in Diyala province, with only 1,000 soldiers but the amenities of a larger base.
Grizzly’s days, though, are numbered. At some point this year American military officials will close the base, one of hundreds across the country to be shuttered as the United States’ presence inside Iraq shrinks.
So when soldiers from Lewis-McChord’s 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment arrived in August, its logisticians began clearing out shipping containers, vehicles and other equipment. Today, the battalion’s commander says, soldiers are prepared to leave Grizzly within 48 hours of receiving notice.
“Drawdown is a mission in itself,” battalion executive officer Maj. John Schwemmer said. “It’s something that needs to be done now, something that will take a long time to do.”
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At its zenith, the American military deployed 180,000 troops and occupied about 480 bases and facilities across Iraq. Today it continues to operate 233 bases and facilities, the latter sometimes as small as just a building in a strategic location such as an Iraqi army compound.
About two-thirds of the remaining locations are shared by Americans and Iraqis, and another 40 to 45 bases and facilities are scheduled to be closed or transferred to Iraqi control over the next three months.
“Every night we have thousands of trucks on the road that are not only resupplying our daily needs, but moving stuff to Kuwait,” Brig. Gen. Peter Bayer, the I Corps chief of staff, told The News Tribune last month in an interview from his office in Baghdad.
“We have moved about a third of the volume of stuff – containers, equipment, rolling stock – that was in Iraq when (I Corps arrived) in April.”
The American military is ahead of schedule on the withdrawal of equipment and the shutdown of bases, Bayer added. Much of the equipment is being placed on trucks and shipped to ports in Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey – and often shipped directly to Afghanistan, where the American military is adding 30,000 combat troops.
And the postponement of the parliamentary elections from Jan. 21 to March 7 hasn’t affected the pace of the drawdown.
Future operations planners at the American military command in Baghdad had factored several contingencies into the drawdown, including an electoral postponement.
“We see no reason – based on what we see happening in the environment right now – that the plan that we have will be compromised in terms of our ability to reach the end state the president has directed for the end of next summer,” he said.
The goal in Iraq is to reach 50,000 trainers and advisers by Aug. 31 and to withdraw all American troops by the end of 2011, though there is a wide belief that the security agreement will be renegotiated to allow some U.S. forces to remain in Iraq.
The drawdown is a gradual process across many parts of the country, with units being replaced by smaller counterparts. Companies are replacing battalions, and battalions are replacing brigades.
“After awhile, you become a self-licking ice cream cone,” said Lt. Col. Chuck Hodges, the commander of 1-23 Infantry. “You’re providing security simply because you’re there to provide security. That’s when it becomes time to get out.”
Grizzly contained 257 shipping containers, including 152 that remained from previous deployments (several apparently had remained in Iraq since the brigade’s first deployment in 2003-04).
Today 50 containers sit on the base, and the battalion uses them daily, Schwemmer said. The battalion identified more than 1,000 pieces of equipment valued at $5 million that were unserviceable or deemed unnecessary for the battalion’s mission, and they have been returned to the supply system. Among the equipment they returned are 59 vehicles, including Humvees, Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected vehicles and cargo trucks.
The battalion’s soldiers also cleaned out a 2-acre storage yard crammed with building materials, plumbing fixtures and electrical equipment. The stuff filled 80 containers and needed 63 trucks to ship it all out.
“It takes time to reduce the massive, massive footprint we’ve built in our seven years in Iraq,” said Col. David Funk, the commander of 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the larger unit to which 1-23 Infantry belongs.
A bit of fanfare often accompanies a base closure or handover. Lewis-McChord’s 17th Fires Brigade shuttered two outposts in Basra province earlier this year, the first of nine that the 1,000-person artillery unit is expected to close over the next few months.
At the handover ceremony Jan. 9, an American soldier sat at a collapsible table with two Iraqi counterparts. American and Iraqi flags fluttered behind them. The three men signed several documents officially transferring ownership of Camp Hutch and Area 51, two outposts inside the larger Shaibah Training Center.
“The base returns do not mean we are ending our partnership with Iraqis,” said Lt. Col. Chuck Roede, the 17th Fires Brigade executive officer. “It just means U.S. partners will not be living and working with their Iraqi counterparts 24/7.”