U.S. Air Force personnel in Baghdad wait to close the back of a military plane… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Contingency Operating Base Adder, — And then Moses spoke: "Let my people go."
Not that Moses. This would be David Moses. Captain, U.S. Army.
Moses' people — a rapidly shrinking U.S. military force — are pouring daily through this base in Iraq's southern desert on their way out of the country.
It is Moses' mission to keep the flood of troops and equipment flowing south to Kuwait, retracing the route thousands of U.S. troops and their armor took when they entered Iraq more than eight years ago. From there, they will head back to the United States, completing the American withdrawal by the end of the year as required by an agreement with the Iraqi government and promised by President Obama.
Camp Adder is one of just five U.S. bases now occupied by the 8,000 troops still in Iraq. That's down from 505 bases and 170,000 troops at the height of the war. As recently as January, there were still 50,000 American troops in Iraq.
Adder, once the largest base in southern Iraq, will be the last to close. Moses will be among those who turn out the lights. The Iraqi military will inherit this base and others, along with millions of dollars' worth of trailers, generators and used cars that would cost too much to ship back.
PHOTOS: Last stop, Camp Adder
The drawdown is progressing with surprising speed. All troops will almost surely be gone well before Dec. 31 as commanders try to make good on Obama's promise to have everyone home by Christmas.
On Wednesday, scores of trucks loaded with gear and equipment were parked in sunbaked rows behind Moses, waiting for the captain and his skeleton crew to clear them for departure.
"We're quickly, quietly and professionally moving out," said Army Lt. Col. Charles Krumwiede, strolling past lines of trucks driven by Indian and Pakistani contractors and protected by U.S. armored vehicles and attack helicopters.
Krumwiede says some Iraqis are suspicious that the Americans really aren't leaving. They demand to know how many troops are secretly staying behind. His reply: None of them.
"We're honoring the security agreement" reached in 2008 between the George W. Bush administration and the Iraqi government. Only 200 to 300 military trainers will remain on 10 Iraqi bases, according to a senior Pentagon official.
Through the course of the war, 4,483 American military personnel have died. Fifty-three have died this year, but none so far this month, according to icasualties.org. The last combat death at Camp Adder was in late October, when a soldier was killed by a roadside bomb.
As the trucks and troops move south, this base located near the southern city of Nasiriya and right next to the site of ancient Ur, continues to collapse inwardly. Until recently, there were 12,000 troops and 1,100 foreign national workers at Adder. The civilians are gone now, and fewer than 2,000 troops remain.
The Burger King and Pizza Hut are long gone. So is the barber shop. The Internet and chow halls were shut down Nov. 20. The PX is an empty shell.
The portable toilets remain. But now it's U.S. soldiers, not Iraqi contract workers, who operate the pumps that suck out the waste. The troops are hauling their own garbage too.
Moses and his crew are surviving on MREs, the military's densely packed Meals, Ready-to-Eat, and bottled water.
A handwritten notation on a white board suggests urgency: "Days of MREs left — 10."
Eighty percent of the equipment leaving Iraq is already out. Every truckload leaving by road must stop at Camp Adder.
How many trucks?
"I lost count," Moses said. He's been at it since the drawdown gained momentum in March.
"We did 1,000 trucks a day in March, 500 a day now," he said. "You do the math. It's hundreds of thousands, I'd say."
Adder, now becoming a ghost town, will spring back to life when the Iraqi military begins operating a major air base here. The U.S. is donating its seven-story control tower, but shutting down other operations.
Equipment too worn or too expensive to ship out is being left for the Iraqis. Krumwiede said the military gear being left behind at Camper Adder was worth about $220 million — but would cost $300 million to ship back. Private contractors are donating loads of heavy equipment to the Iraqis for the same reason.
Army Col. Rick Kaiser, who serves as mayor of what once was a thriving military city at Adder, likes to show visitors what he calls his used car lot.
More than 900 dusty, well-worn pickups, vans and SUVs are parked in the sun, keys in the ignition, waiting to be turned over to the Iraqis. In military-speak, they're foreign excess personal property.
"There are some good deals there, but some, well, they might need a little work," Kaiser said. "They've been driven under some pretty harsh conditions."
Nearby, hundreds of white trailers known quaintly as CHUs, or containerized housing units, were once home to U.S. troops. They've been handed over to Iraqi forces.
"If you paid to move these CHUs back to the U.S., they'd be scrap by the time they got there," Kaiser said. U.S. troops also are leaving behind the massive generators that helped power the base.
In all, the military has saved $700 million by not shipping certain equipment back to the States, said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Commanders won't say when the last convoy and last soldiers will cross into Kuwait, but it will be soon.
"The mission is over when it's over," Moses said. "We'll make sure every last piece of equipment is cleared, and then we'll close up shop and leave."