Buzz of Permanent Iraq Bases Irks Congress

Members of Congress are becoming increasingly concerned that the United States is planning to keep permanent military bases in Iraq. In public comments, Pentagon leaders have not ruled out the possibility. At the moment, the military is trying to consolidate its bases in Iraq into fewer, but larger facilities.

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Members of Congress are expressing growing concern that the United States is planning to keep military bases in Iraq permanently. In public comments, senior Pentagon officials have not ruled out that possibility, although they say there are no such plans at the moment.

President Bush has said that he expects U.S. forces to remain in Iraq for at least the next three years. And as NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports, military planners indicate it will be much longer than that.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

This has become such a hot button issue in Congress that the House of Representatives passed a resolution last month declaring that the U.S. has no plan to establish a permanent military presence in Iraq. The resolution has no enforcement power, but it does reflect the depth of opposition to keeping American forces in Iraq long-term.

This week, this issue came up again when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified before a House subcommittee. Congressman Steven Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat, asked the question and then interrupted Rice's response, demanding a direct answer.

Representative STEVEN ROTHMAN (Democrat, New Jersey): Madam Secretary, will the bases be permanent or not?

Secretary of State CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I think the, the, I would think the people will tell you, we're not seeking permanent bases, really, pretty much anywhere in the world these days. We are, in fact, in the process of removing base structure from a lot of places.

O'HARA: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that the question of keeping a U.S. force in Iraq will have to be put to a new Iraqi government when it's established. But the Air Force, for one, is planning for a long-term stay. U.S. Brigadier General David Eidsaune is in charge of developing a new Iraqi Air Force. In February, he offered what has become the standard U.S. response to queries about a troop withdrawal.

Brigadier General DAVID EIDSAUNE (United States Air Force): Our departure here will depend on the ability of the Iraqi armed, or security forces to stand up and take over.

O'HARA: But then Eidsaune said that the U.S. Air Force has a plan for developing the Iraqi Air Force over a 10 year period.

Members of Congress who oppose keeping U.S. forces in Iraq worry that 10 years could turn into decades, as happened with U.S. forces in Korea, Japan, and Western Europe. And they warn that establishing permanent bases in Iraq could provoke a broader insurgency.

Military analyst, Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, says that is a valid concern.

Dr. ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Director of the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessment): If these bases are viewed as permanent, then they may be seen by Iraqis or by others in the region as a U.S. occupation of Iraq. So, the political aspect of this is going to be very important.

O'HARA: Krepinevich says that political sensitivities aside, there are strategic reasons for the U.S. to seek more bases in the Persian Gulf.

Dr. KREPINEVICH: This is an area, historically, where we've had relatively few bases and relatively few allies. And so, in this very different world where the danger isn't from the Soviet Union, it's not principally in Europe, we're finding that, quite frankly, our bases are mal-positioned.

O'HARA: Joseph Gerson is director of programs at the American Friends Service Committee in New England, and the author of a book on U.S. bases around the world. He says he's convinced the United States will keep bases in Iraq to protect Middle East oil and because of the general instability in the region.

JOSEPH GERSON (Director of Programs at the American Friends Service Committee): Either they'll remain permanent U.S. bases under, you know, strict U.S. control and essentially under U.S. sovereignty or, on the other hand, under an access agreement, they have the façade of being under the sovereign control of the host nation, in this case, Iraq. But functionally, they're really under U.S. control.

O'HARA: Pentagon officials point out that the number of U.S. bases in Iraq is gradually being reduced as Americans hand over facilities to the new Iraqi security forces.

A spokesman for the Multinational Force Command in Baghdad, Major Tim Keefe, says the current plan is to consolidate coalition forces at six enlarged bases spread across Iraq. The purpose, he says, is to provide more protection for American troops and to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq.

Andrew Krepinevich predicts those bases will be needed for a long time if Iraq is going to have a chance at stability.

Dr. KREPINEVICH: If there is going to be democracy, I think it's almost certain that we're going to have to have an enduring military presence in Iraq. And probably the cheapest way to do that is to have permanent bases.

O'HARA: In public comments, Pentagon officials do not use the word permanent to describe the U.S. military presence in Iraq. They say only that U.S. forces will stay as long as Iraq wants them and as long as it takes to accomplish their mission.

Vicky O'Hara, NPR news. Washington.

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