On Friday the huge U.S. military base in Baghdad known as Camp Victory will be transferred to Iraqi control in the most tangible sign yet that the U.S. is nearing the end of its eight-year presence in Iraq.
Built around Saddam Hussein’s grandiose and gaudy Al-Faw Palace complex in western Baghdad, near the international airport, the base was the largest of the 505 American military installations set up in Iraq and served as the headquarters for all U.S. military operations in Iraq.
Surrounded by 27 miles of concrete barriers, the base was one of the most visible reminders of the ongoing American military presence in Iraq. At the height of the surge in 2007, the base was home to as many as 40,000 troops and 30,000 contractors.
There are no plans for a handover ceremony on Friday though a solemn commemoration event was held today to pay tribute to the sacrifices of American and Iraqi soldiers in the eight-year-long war.
The ceremony was held in the palace’s vast marble-lined rotunda hall used by Presidents Bush and Obama to address large numbers of American service members during their brief visits.
Today Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Vice President Joe Biden addressed several hundred American and Iraqi troops gathered for the event to praise their sacrifice.
Biden said it was ”because of you and the work that those of you in uniform have done, we are now able to end this war.” As of today, 4,486 Americans have died in the war in Iraq.
White House officials told reporters traveling with Biden that Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had told Biden staffers that Camp Victory would be handed over to the Iraqi government on Friday. ”Tonight is the last night U.S. troops will sleep there,” one White House official said.
Though the United States has until the end of the year to get all of its forces out of Iraq, American military commanders have said that the bulk of American forces will have left the country by mid-December.
The pace of the American drawdown increased dramatically in November; more than 20,000 troops have left Iraq in the past four weeks. There are currently 13,000 U.S. forces still in Iraq.
With violence levels at their lowest since the 2003 invasion, American commanders have expressed confidence that Iraq’s security forces will be up to the task of countering the lingering threat posed by insurgents.
However, two violent attacks in northern Iraq on Thursday killed 20 Iraqis and left 32 wounded, the latest in a string of deadly terrorist attacks this week intended to destabilize the Iraqi government as it prepares to assume full responsibility for its own security.
As at other American military facilities throughout Iraq, U.S. personnel and equipment have been quietly moved to Kuwait in what military planners have characterized as one of the most complicated logistical feats since World War II.
Only a handful of big U.S. bases remain to be transferred over to Iraqi control by the end of the pullout. The big U.S. air base at Balad in northern Iraq was transferred to Iraqi control last week.
The installation known as Camp Victory was so large that it housed several other military bases within its fence lines, such as Camp Liberty, Camp Striker and a detention facility known as Camp Cropper.
In an ironic twist Saddam Hussein spent three years detained in a secret cell located in one of the palace’s villas. Camp Victory was also the scene of his trial and execution.
Whenever American VIP’s visited Iraq, they would stay at visitors quarters housed at the Camp Victory complex. Visitors usually got a peek at the huge carp that populated the artificial lakes at the palace complex.
A frequent photo stop for the many service members who either served or visited the base was the large upholstered throne chair that belonged to Hussein.
The chair and everything else found at the complex when the American military took over the facility in 2003 will be returned to the Iraqi government.
The Iraqi government will also inherit the large number of air-conditioned containerized units that housed so many American troops over the years.
Though millions of pieces of equipment have been moved out of Iraq, as the U.S. transfers bases to Iraqi control the U.S. has exercised a cost saving by leaving behind any equipment whose shipping cost was greater than its current market value.