ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
In Iraq, the U.S. military base at Balad, that's 60 miles north of Baghdad, is rapidly becoming one of the largest American military installations outside the U.S. About 30,000 troops are stationed there, along with thousands of contractors and Defense Department civilian employees.
As NPR's Guy Raz reports, the military is quickly putting down roots at Balad.
GUY RAZ: The base is one giant construction project with new roads, sidewalks and structures going up across this 16-square-mile fortress that's right in the heart of Iraq, and all of it with an eye towards the next few decades. And as the President has said, the U.S. is establishing a long-term relationship with the government in Baghdad.
GEORGE W BUSH: We have done this kind of work before in Europe. We have done this kind of work before in Japan. We have done this kind of work before and it can be done again.
RAZ: Balad Air Base is now the headquarters for an Air Force expeditionary wing. And billions of dollars are being spent on upgrades at the base.
CHARLES CROFT: The runway has been reworked. It was basically falling apart last time we were here.
RAZ: Colonel Charles Croft surveys the two runways here. They have been fixed. Soon, they'll be expanded to accommodate increasing air traffic. It's Moore's(ph) third tour of duty at Balad and he's seen the transformation right up close.
CROFT: Instead of tents, we've got modular trailers, which is really nice. We - I stayed in tents the first couple of times I was around here.
RAZ: The bus pulls up at a stop near one of the dining halls. The base is so big there is a regular bus service within its perimeter. And the services here are commensurate with the size of the population.
Unidentified Man #1: Meatballs...
Unidentified Man #2: What kind of (unintelligible) sauce.
Man #1: American.
RAZ: SUBWAY Sandwich is one of the several U.S. chains that has a foothold here. There are two base exchanges that are about as big as a Target or K-Mart. Consumer items from laptop computers to flat-screen TVs to Harley Davidson motorcycles are available for purchase.
Comforts, says Captain Shawn Scott, can make life seem a little more like home.
SHAWN SCOTT: It's definitely becoming more settled. It's less expeditionary. It's starting to feel more like a base back home. We're getting a lot of services here and the food's getting better.
RAZ: Back in Washington, Pentagon officials insist that the U.S. military is in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government and will depart when asked to do so. But several senior military officials have privately described Balad Air Bas, and a few other large installations in Iraq, as future bases of operation for the U.S. military.
And the Air Force commander at Balad, General Burt Field, the base is an ideal staging ground.
BURT FIELD: You know, it's centrally located there, it's a large facility. We've worked very hard to improve the situation. So, I mean, it would certainly be one that they should consider if we're going to be a long-term presence here.
Unidentified Man #3: How are you doing? How are you doing?
RAZ: Every Thursday, a group of Iraqi merchants arrives on base to sell pirated DVDs and knock-off Saddam Hussein memorabilia. The troops call it the haji mart.
For many of the Air Force personnel stationed here, like Major Jeremy Saunders, it's the only time they will ever meet an Iraqi during their deployment. The vast majority of airmen will never leave the base. Saunders says when his family back home asks him what Iraq was like, he says he's not really sure.
JEREMY SAUNDERS: Yeah, the pictures that we see are the same as they see. And so really, we don't know much more about it being here than they do over there. So...
RAZ: About the only excitement here happens every few hours, when an Orwellian recording warns of a mortar attack.
UXO: There has been an indirect fire attack. Post-attack reconnaissance teams are directed to conduct UXO checks.
RAZ: There is little risk of being hit. The base is vast and well protected. Housing units, shops, dining halls - they're all surrounded by 15-foot-high concrete walls. Concrete is in such demand that a U.S. contractor built a concrete factory right on the base.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)
RAZ: Everywhere you go on the base, the sounds of construction and the hum of generator seem to follow. At night, from the sky, the base resembles Las Vegas. Although surrounding Iraqi villages get about 10 hours of electricity a day, the lights never go out at Balad Air Base.
Guy Raz, NPR News.
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