Troops Leave Iraq, But Where Will Their Stuff Go?

In addition to the drawdown of thousands of American troops from Iraq, there is a massive logistics operation underway to determine what equipment the U.S. will send home, what it will move to Afghanistan, and what it will leave for Iraq.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The deployment of U.S. combat troops in Iraq numbered 160,000 at its height. Now, just a few more than 50,000 troops remain, and they're expected to be withdrawn by the end of next year, along with the massive U.S. military infrastructure in Iraq.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports on the logistics of the withdrawal from near Nasariyah in Southern Iraq.

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MIKE SHUSTER: At Camp Adder on the Tallil Air Base, two soldiers struggled to move an MRAP, a mine-resistant ambush-protected troop carrier, onto a flatbed truck. It's hot, dirty work in the midday sun, but the pressure is on to reduce not only the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, but their weaponry and equipment as well.

Lieutenant Colonel Gary Bush is the Second Battalion 402nd Army Field Support commander.

Lieutenant Colonel GARY BUSH (Commander, Second Battalion 402nd Army Field Support): This particular one has been identified to go to Afghanistan. So, it'll get processed down in Kuwait and then shipped to Afghanistan to fill that requirement.

SHUSTER: It's just one of thousands that have been processed at Camp Adder and sent on to Kuwait for a trip to Afghanistan or a trip home. Several huge yards at Camp Adder are filled with hundreds of vehicles sitting on transport trucks. Specialist Brandon Gums runs the yards.

Specialist BRANDON GUMS: We pretty much act as a traffic controller as far as, like, scheduling the convoys to make sure none of the convoys conflict on the roadway.

SHUSTER: It's a complex job. The two-lane road going south to Kuwait is filled with convoys of troops and equipment. It's easy for them to get tangled without sufficient controls. That's especially evident to the helicopter crews who sometimes watch and protect the convoys from the air, and who sometimes get too close to the vehicles and stir up dust clouds that make the slow trip to Kuwait even more unpleasant.

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible) I think they started shooting.

Unidentified Man #2: I sure hope not.

SHUSTER: Each vehicle is tracked by a complex computer system. This is 21st century logistics and Brigadier General Mark Corson of the 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command says the goal is to account for every single last piece.

Brigadier General MARK CORSON (103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command): But here's the trick: we've not only shipped all that, we actually know what we have, we know where it's going, we know who else needs it. It's more than just shipping it.

SHUSTER: The U.S. has already sent 180,000 vehicles and equipment containers to Afghanistan and more than 860,000 back to the United States. The threat of roadside bombs or attacks remains, but at a low level. The helicopters are there to help but sometimes the chopper crews have difficultly identifying what they see.

Unidentified Man #3: Hey, (unintelligible), is that a camel at about one o'clock?

Unidentified Man #4: That's a barrel of some kind.

Unidentified Man #3: It looked like, for a minute, with the backlighting, it looked like a rider on some kind of animal.

SHUSTER: The United States will leave behind much equipment for the Iraqis as well. The number of U.S. bases here has already shrunk from more than 500 to some 96. At Camp Adder, the Air Force has invested hundreds of millions of dollars building a new air traffic control tower and completely modernizing the airstrip, says Captain Daniel Durr.

Captain DANIEL DURR: Now, we have a full-up instrument landing system, just like you would have back at a international airport back home that can bring its precision approach, that can bring an aircraft down through the weather right down, pretty much almost to the runway. We have a full-up modern lighting system on this runway. We have sequence flashing lights, precision approach, all sorts of different lighting systems.

SHUSTER: This will all be turned over to the Iraqis in the coming months, but for now its still American voices in the tower and in the cockpit.

Unidentified Man #5: Yeah, Roger that. (unintelligible) you were calling us back.

Unidentified Man #6: And come 2-2, vicinity of the ziggurat, an additional two helos holding northwest of the runway at this time.

SHUSTER: The ziggurat is the nearby remains of an ancient pyramid from the Samarian city of Ur, dating back more than 4,000 years. The modern and the ancient side-by-side as the U.S., only the most recent foreign power to come to Iraq, works furiously to keep its departure on schedule.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Baghdad.

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