US BASE SPEICHER // In his five deployments to Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, Lt Col Richard Manhart, a combat support officer, has faced Republican Guards, roadside bombs, 22-hour days and all the other difficulties that come with equipping a large US force in Iraq.
Now, however, the biggest challenge he faces is getting that equipment out. "It's the biggest logistical undertaking since probably the Korean War" more than 40 years ago, Lt Col Manhart said. "It's a monumental operation." Under a timetable set by the US president, Barack Obama, all US combat forces will be out of Iraq by September 1, 2011. And that means the massive amounts of equipment the US military has accumulated over seven years of deployment will also be leaving the country.
At Speicher, the extensive US military base on the outskirts of Tikrit, equipment from surrounding military sites is being recorded and transported ahead of the withdrawal. Lt Col Manhart, the commander of the combat support brigade on Speicher, has already moved US$5 million (Dh18.3m) worth of military equipment off the base since September 2009. That figure is set to dramatically increase over the next few months, following the March 7 election which by yesterday still had not delivered a clear winner, with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his main rival, Iyad Allawi, still neck and neck with 90 per cent of the votes counted.
The US has long seen the elections as the milestone that justifies the withdrawal of the 96,000 troops it has stationed in Iraq. And despite the election violence in Baghdad, the claims of ballot rigging and electoral fraud, Mr Obama has made clear that the withdrawal plan stands. The plan is that by August 30, only 50,000 US troops will remain in Iraq, none of whom will be in combat roles, and instead of 290 bases, there will be fewer than 10.
Even with the remaining US presence, the withdrawal will probably be perceived, in Iraq and elsewhere, as the final act of the war. In all, US logistics teams in Iraq will have to move over one million tonnes of equipment from the bases around the country. It is an undertaking that requires individual units to strip buildings, file huge amounts paperwork and account for the hodgepodge assortment of gear left on the ground over the years by previously deployed units.
"Weapons systems, weather systems, we take it down and turn it in here, everything from soup to nuts and MRaps," said Capt Rueben Doornink, referring to Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armoured vehicles that replaced humvees when roadside bombs began shredding through US convoys. "They're heavy as hell," Capt Doornink said. "And we've got a lot of them." Indeed. There are 10,000 "rolling stock" military vehicles such as MRaps in the north of Iraq alone. Each door on an MRAP weighs more than 300kg.
Other choice items on the military's list of things to transport out of Iraq include thousands of kilometres of concrete blast walls and the M-88 - essentially, a million-dollar tow-truck for tanks. It weighs over 63,500kg. Thousands of MRaps, tanks, lorries and M-88s are in the process of being hauled out of Iraq on trailers known as HETS, or heavy equipment transporters. These will carry equipment out of the country and into Kuwait, where, Lt Col Manhart says, it will either be taken back to the US and retrofitted, shipped to Pakistan and then driven onto Afghanistan, or kept in a storage facility in Kuwait, where it can be used again in the event of another large-scale US deployment in the Middle East.
As dusty winds thrash through Speicher, Lt Danny Charles and his team of army reservists rifle through the bits and pieces dumped by military units as part of Operation Clean Sweep. Their effort is part of an amnesty for units to offload miscellaneous unused material in their area of operations, without having to process the necessary paper work. "Basically, it's the fastest way to get stuff out of Iraq," Lt Charles said.
Before being loaded into shipping containers, Lt Charles's unit processes an eclectic mix of military wealth. Armour plating, electrical parts, hazardous material and even boxes full of sombreros are dumped here, said Lt Charles, as a comrade amused himself by hitting rocks with a discarded golf club. "We once found two big Iraqi anti-aircraft guns, they were probably sitting in somebody's HQ as a sort of memento," he said.
As bases shut down, some equipment will be passed onto the Iraqi military, although exactly how much and what is still being debated. US military commanders and state department officials will base their decision on the needs of the Iraqi army and the cost-effectiveness of shipping certain equipment out of the country. "Take this refrigerator, for instance," said Lt Col Manhart pointing to the white Gatorade-filled item in his office. "It's 220 volt and won't work in the United States or Afghanistan."
"Is it really cost-effective to take 2,000, 220-volt refrigerators out of the country just to leave them somewhere in Kuwait? I don't think so." * The National