JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — Everything from helicopters to printer cartridges is being wrapped and stamped and shipped out of Iraq. U.S. military bases that once resembled small towns have transformed into a cross between giant post offices and Office Depots.
Soldiers who battled through insurgents and roadside bombs are now doing inventory and accounting. Their task: reverse over the course of months a U.S. military presence that built up over seven years of war.
"We're moving out millions of pieces of equipment in one of the largest logistics operations that we've seen in decades," President Obama said in a speech Monday hailing this month's planned withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
The orderly withdrawal is a far cry from when American Marines and soldiers pushed north in the 2003 invasion, battling Saddam Hussein's army while sleeping on the hoods of their vehicles and eating prepackaged meals.
"I think it's probably more challenging leaving, responsibly drawing down, than it is getting here, because you just have to figure out where everything is and getting it out of here. Are there enough airplanes, ships, containers, and do we have enough time to do that and meet the president's mandate?" said Col. David F. Demartino, who is responsible for infrastructure and support services at Balad, which is home to 25,000 troops and civilians.
In essence the drawdown has been happening since late 2008. That's when the U.S. started to reduce its numbers following the surge, which raised the American presence to about 170,000. Now the U.S. has just under 65,000 troops in the country, and the withdrawal is reaching a more furious pace as the August deadline approaches.
Only 50,000 U.S. service personnel will remain after August. All troops are supposed to leave and all bases close by the end of next year, unless Iraq asks the U.S. to renegotiate their agreement to allow for a continued American presence.