Byline: GREGORY PIATT, The Times-Union
BALAD, Iraq -- Port-a-potties are disappearing at Camp Anaconda, replaced with trailers full of flush latrines and showers. Bulldozers spread gravel around to lay a foundation for what will come next.
Air Force and Army planes land regularly at this sprawling U.S. military base, 50 miles north of Baghdad and out of sight of a large population.
A year has passed since President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, declaring the end of major combat in Iraq in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner. It has also been a year since the administration said it wouldn't plan any long-term bases in Iraq.
Yet fighting continues as U.S. troops repel daily and deadly attacks from insurgents. As of Wednesday, 775 Americans have died. And despite an expected transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in late June, the military has begun hunkering down -- some say for the long term -- at this camp and others.
"They [the military] want to put the soldiers in trailers and get them out of tents," said Army Maj. Richard Spiegel, base spokesman at Camp Anaconda.
"Enduring," as in more permanent, is the word Spiegel uses for the trailer upgrade, construction and overall hardening of structures at the camp, which now has 17,000 troops and is 12 1/2 miles in circumference.
No one is saying when U.S. troops will leave Iraq. The Pentagon said last week it planned to keep about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through at least 2005, thus maintaining a higher-than-expected troop level in-country long after Iraq becomes a sovereign nation. In the meantime, the military also would like to consolidate from about 100 bases of various sizes to 14 large bases.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee in March that large numbers of troops will be engaged in Iraq "for a considerable amount of time." But the Army also is looking to lower the profile of troops by moving to more permanent facilities within large Iraqi bases in lesser populated areas, Abizaid said.
However, there are some who think the political climate in Iraq will prevent U.S. troops from staying a long time at permanent bases.
"There is a grand plan to establish bases, but then there is reality," said Marcus Corbin, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a think tank specializing in defense issues in Washington, in a recent phone interview. "The troubles we are seeing will poison the water for long-term bases."
But there are other signs in the Persian Gulf region pointing to a long-term U.S. involvement in Iraq and the Middle East.
American troops and equipment have left bases in Saudi Arabia, but the United States has been building or adding to bases in Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, for example, has become the logistics and staging base for the operation in Iraq.
"We believe force rotation is something we're going to have to plan on for the next several years," said Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Speakes, deputy commander of U.S. and coalition ground forces in Kuwait, in March.
With the realization that the U.S. may be in Iraq for the foreseeable future, the military is moving soldiers into hardened structures while improving recreation facilities, runways and roads among the bases. Analysts say reports and speculation from military officials in the region bears watching, but they point to the build-up is the most tangible evidence of a longer stay in Iraq.
"Long-term plans are poured in concrete and not put on paper," said John Pike, director of Global Security.Org, an independent Web site that follows defense issues.
As the more permanent construction continues, especially in Iraq, the military is facing a June 30 deadline to transfer sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government. At that time, the United Nations resolution expires that authorizes U. …