WASHINGTON — Even as military planners look to withdraw significant numbers of American troops from Iraq in the coming year, the Bush administration continues to request hundreds of millions of dollars for large bases there, raising concerns over whether they are intended as permanent sites for U.S. forces.
Questions on Capitol Hill about the future of the bases have been prompted by the new emergency spending bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives last week with $67.6 billion in funding for the war effort, including the base money.
Although the House approved the measure, lawmakers are demanding that the Pentagon explain its plans for the bases, and they unanimously passed a provision blocking the use of funds for base agreements with the Iraqi government.
"It's the kind of thing that incites terrorism," Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said of long-term or permanent U.S. bases in countries such as Iraq.
Paul, a critic of the war, is co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill that would make it official policy not to maintain such bases in Iraq. He noted that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden cited U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia as grounds for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The debate in Congress comes as concerns grow over how long the U.S. intends to keep forces in Iraq, a worry amplified when President Bush earlier this week said that a complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq would not occur during his term.
Long-term U.S. bases in Iraq would also be problematic in the Middle East, where they could lend credence to charges that the U.S. motive for the invasion was to seize land and oil. And they could also feed debate about the appropriate U.S. relationship with Iraq after Baghdad's new government fully assumes control.
State Department and Pentagon officials have insisted that the bases being constructed in Iraq will eventually be handed over to the Iraqi government.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Baghdad, said on Iraqi television last week that the U.S. had "no goal of establishing permanent bases in Iraq."
And Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable said, "We're building permanent bases in Iraq for Iraqis."
But the seemingly definitive administration statements mask a semantic distinction: Although officials say they are not building permanent U.S. bases, they decline to say whether they will seek a deal with the new Iraqi government to allow long-term troop deployments.
Asked at a congressional hearing last week whether he could "make an unequivocal commitment" that the U.S. officials would not seek to establish permanent bases in Iraq, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander in charge of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, replied, "The policy on long-term presence in Iraq hasn't been formulated." Venable, the Pentagon spokesman, said it was "premature and speculative" to discuss long-term base agreements before the permanent Iraqi government had been put in place.
All told, the United States has set up 110 forward operating bases in Iraq, and the Pentagon says about 34 of them already have been turned over to the Iraqi government, part of an ongoing effort to gradually strengthen Iraqi security forces.
Bush is under political pressure to reduce the number of U.S. troops before midterm congressional elections, and the Pentagon is expected to decide soon whether the next major deployment will reflect a significant reduction in forces.
But despite the potential force reductions and the base handovers, the spending has continued.
Dov Zakheim, who oversaw the Pentagon's emergency spending requests as the department's budget chief until 2004, said critics might be reading too much into the costly emergency spending, needed to protect U.S. forces from insurgent attacks and provide better conditions for deployed troops.
The spending "doesn't necessarily connote permanence," Zakheim said. "God knows it's a tough enough environment anyway."
The bulk of the Pentagon's emergency spending for military construction over the last three years in Iraq has focused on three or four large-scale air and logistics bases that dot the center of the country.
The administration is seeking $348 million for base construction as part of its 2006 emergency war funding bill. The Senate has not yet acted on the request.
By far the most funding has gone to a mammoth facility north of Baghdad in Balad, which includes an air base and a logistics center. The U.S. Central Command said it intended to use the base as the military's primary hub in the region as it gradually hands off Baghdad airport to civilian authorities.
Through the end last year, the administration spent about $230 million in emergency funds on the Balad base, and its new request includes $17.8 million for new roads that can accommodate hulking military vehicles and a 12.4-mile-long, 13-foot-high security fence.