WASHINGTON — Even as military planners look to withdraw significant numbers of American troops from Iraq in the coming year, the Bush administration continues to request hundreds of millions of dollars for large bases there, raising concerns over whether they are intended as permanent sites for U.S. forces.
Questions on Capitol Hill about the future of the bases have been prompted by the new emergency spending bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives last week with $67.6 billion in funding for the war effort, including the base money.
Although the House approved the measure, lawmakers are demanding that the Pentagon explain its plans for the bases, and they unanimously passed a provision blocking the use of funds for base agreements with the Iraqi government.
"It's the kind of thing that incites terrorism," Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said of long-term or permanent U.S. bases in countries such as Iraq.
Paul, a critic of the war, is co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill that would make it official policy not to maintain such bases in Iraq. He noted that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden cited U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia as grounds for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The debate in Congress comes as concerns grow over how long the U.S. intends to keep forces in Iraq, a worry amplified when President Bush earlier this week said that a complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq would not occur during his term.
Long-term U.S. bases in Iraq would also be problematic in the Middle East, where they could lend credence to charges that the U.S. motive for the invasion was to seize land and oil. And they could also feed debate about the appropriate U.S. relationship with Iraq after Baghdad's new government fully assumes control.
State Department and Pentagon officials have insisted that the bases being constructed in Iraq will eventually be handed over to the Iraqi government.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Baghdad, said on Iraqi television last week that the U.S. had "no goal of establishing permanent bases in Iraq."
And Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable said, "We're building permanent bases in Iraq for Iraqis."
But the seemingly definitive administration statements mask a semantic distinction: Although officials say they are not building permanent U.S. bases, they decline to say whether they will seek a deal with the new Iraqi government to allow long-term troop deployments.
Asked at a congressional hearing last week whether he could "make an unequivocal commitment" that the U.S. officials would not seek to establish permanent bases in Iraq, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander in charge of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, replied, "The policy on long-term presence in Iraq hasn't been formulated." Venable, the Pentagon spokesman, said it was "premature and speculative" to discuss long-term base agreements before the permanent Iraqi government had been put in place.
All told, the United States has set up 110 forward operating bases in Iraq, and the Pentagon says about 34 of them already have been turned over to the Iraqi government, part of an ongoing effort to gradually strengthen Iraqi security forces.
Bush is under political pressure to reduce the number of U.S. troops before midterm congressional elections, and the Pentagon is expected to decide soon whether the next major deployment will reflect a significant reduction in forces.
But despite the potential force reductions and the base handovers, the spending has continued.
Dov Zakheim, who oversaw the Pentagon's emergency spending requests as the department's budget chief until 2004, said critics might be reading too much into the costly emergency spending, needed to protect U.S. forces from insurgent attacks and provide better conditions for deployed troops.
The spending "doesn't necessarily connote permanence," Zakheim said. "God knows it's a tough enough environment anyway."
The bulk of the Pentagon's emergency spending for military construction over the last three years in Iraq has focused on three or four large-scale air and logistics bases that dot the center of the country.
The administration is seeking $348 million for base construction as part of its 2006 emergency war funding bill. The Senate has not yet acted on the request.
By far the most funding has gone to a mammoth facility north of Baghdad in Balad, which includes an air base and a logistics center. The U.S. Central Command said it intended to use the base as the military's primary hub in the region as it gradually hands off Baghdad airport to civilian authorities.
Through the end last year, the administration spent about $230 million in emergency funds on the Balad base, and its new request includes $17.8 million for new roads that can accommodate hulking military vehicles and a 12.4-mile-long, 13-foot-high security fence.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted in a report last year that many of the funds already spent, including for the facilities at Balad, suggested a longer-term U.S. presence.
Projects at the base include an $18-million aircraft parking ramp and a $15-million airfield lighting system that has allowed commanders to make Balad a strategic air center for the region; a $2.9-million Special Operations compound, isolated from the rest of the base and complete with landing pads for helicopters and airplanes, where classified payloads can be delivered; and a $7-million mail distribution building.
Other bases also are being developed in ways that could lend them to permanent use.
This year's request also includes $110 million for Tallil air base outside the southeastern city of Nasiriya, a sprawling facility in the shadow of the ruins of the biblical city of Ur. Only $11 million has been spent so far, but the administration's new request appears to envision Tallil as another major transportation hub, with new roads, a new dining hall for 6,000 troops — about two Army brigades — and a new center to organize and support large supply convoys.
The administration also has spent $50 million for Camp Taji, an Army base north of Baghdad, and $46.3 million on Al Asad air base in the western desert.
These large bases are being built at the same time that hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on separate bases for the growing Iraqi military. According to the U.S. Central Command and data obtained from the Army Corps of Engineers, for example, about $165 million has been spent to build an Iraqi base near the southern town of Numaniya and more than $150 million for a northern base at the old Iraqi army's Al Kasik facility.
The big numbers have begun to cause consternation in congressional appropriations committees, which are demanding more accountability from Pentagon officials on military construction in the region.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the president's newest funding bill this month with a strongly worded warning. In a report accompanying the legislation, the committee noted that it had already approved about $1.3 billion in emergency spending for war-related construction, but that the recently declared "long war" on terrorism should allow more oversight of plans for bases in the region.
It "has become clear in recent years that these expeditionary operations can result in substantial military construction expenditures of a magnitude normally associated with permanent bases," the committee reported.
Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees military construction, said his panel was concerned that money the Pentagon was ostensibly seeking for short-term emergency needs actually was going to projects that were not urgent but long-term in nature.
Walsh pointed to a $167-million request to build a series of roads in Iraq that bypass major cities, a proposal the administration said was needed to decrease the convoys' exposure to roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Walsh's subcommittee cut the budget for the project to $60 million. He said the project sounded "more like road construction" than it did a strategy to protect troops from IEDs.
The Appropriations Committee also inserted a ban on spending any of the new money on facilities in Iraq until the U.S. Central Command submitted a master plan for bases in the region. Abizaid, in congressional testimony last week, said such a plan was in the process of getting final Pentagon approval for release to the committee. But he noted: "The master plan is fairly clear on everything except for Iraq and Afghanistan, which I don't have policy guidance for long term."
Without such detail, it might prove impossible for congressional appropriators to get a firm idea of how the administration views the future of the U.S. presence on big bases in Iraq.
In any event, said Zakheim, the former Pentagon budget officer, projects that expand bases' ability to handle American cargo and warplanes will eventually be of use to the Iraqi government.
"Just because the Iraqis don't have an air force now doesn't mean they won't have it several years down the road," he said.
But critics said it was all the more reason for the administration to stop being vague about the future.
"The Iraqis believe we came for their oil and we're going to put bases on top of their oil," said Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), a critic of the administration's approach. "As long as the vast majority of Iraqis believe we want to be there indefinitely, those who are opposed to us are going to fight harder and those who are with us are going to be less enthusiastic."
Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.
On the rise
Here are four of the bases in Iraq for which the Bush administration has planned upgrades. Money spent through 2005 was granted through emergency spending bills since 2003:
1. Al Asad air base
By some accounts the second largest military air center in Iraq and the main supply base for troops in Al Anbar Province, which includes the insurgent strongholds of Fallouja and Ramadi. It houses about 17,000 troops, including a large contingent of Marines.
Bush 2006 request: $46.3 million
2. Balad air base
The U.S. military's main air transportation and supply hub in Iraq, with two giant runways. Also known as Camp Anaconda, it is the largest support base in the country, with about 22,500 troops and several thousand contractors.
Spending: $228.7 million*
Bush 2006 request: $17.8 million.
3. Camp Taji
One of the largest facilities for U.S. ground forces in Iraq, the base also serves as home to about 15,000 Iraqi security forces. It has the largest military shopping center (PX) in the country.
Spending: $49.6 million*
Bush 2006 request: None
4. Tallil air base
An increasingly important air and transportation hub, with a growing population of coalition troops and contractors. It has become a key stopping point for supply convoys moving north from Kuwait and is close to one of the Iraqi army's main training facilities.
Spending: $10.8 million*
Bush 2006 request: $110.3 million
Sources: U.S. Central Command, Congressional Research Service, Global Security.org
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times