The American military is shipping battlefield equipment through Jordan and Kuwait, testing possible exit routes in advance of a U.S. withdrawal in Iraq, military officials said.
The convoys — carrying armored vehicles, weapons and other items — mark the Pentagon’s first steps in confronting the complex logistics of transporting the huge arsenal stockpiled in Iraq over nearly six years.
It’s also part of a wider assessment, ordered by U.S. Central Command, to decide what items the military can transfer, donate, sell or toss away once a full-scale withdrawal is under way, Marine Corps and Army officials told The Associated Press.
“Because they are starting to see a potential reduction of forces, they are looking to get more stuff out,” Terry Moores, the deputy assistant chief of staff for logistics for Marine Corps Central Command, said Saturday.
“We started slow,” Moores said, but added “it’s picked up speed” in recent months.
The Iraqi-U.S. security pact, which took effect Jan. 1, calls for American troops to withdraw from Iraq’s cities by June 30 and completely pull out troops by 2012 — a timeline that could speed up if President Barack Obama keeps to a campaign promise to have troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office.
In testimony before the U.S. House of Representative earlier this month, the independent Government Accountability Office said the Pentagon needed to redefine its withdrawal strategy, saying it did not take into account either the security pact deadline or Obama’s possible accelerated timeframe.
The biggest obstacle is the question of how to move tens of thousands of personnel and millions of tons of equipment out of Iraq, according to testimony by a GAO managing director.
The U.S. brought most of its material in through Kuwait, one of the main staging grounds for the 2003 invasion. There are currently more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
“The capacity of facilities in Kuwait and other neighboring countries may limit the speed at which equipment and material can be moved out of Iraq,” the GAO report said.
It recommended looking at multiple routes through Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey, where the U.S. has already constructed bridge overpasses for heavy tanks on the road between the Iraqi border and the Mediterranean ports of Iskenderun and Mersin.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the Pentagon has already examined exit routes through Turkey and Jordan. Both countries, longtime U.S. allies, support the withdrawal planning contingencies, said Mullen.
The Marines have made 17 shipments of vehicles and weapons — totaling 20,000 items — through Jordan’s Aqaba port, using contractors to haul the items to either commercial container ships or U.S. Navy ships, Moores said in a telephone interview from Bahrain, the base of the U.S. 5th Fleet.
“Jordan and Kuwait offer a great mix of routes and great infrastructure to get our stuff out,” he said.
The shipments through Jordan also has given the leaders in Amman an “understanding about what it takes to move equipment and personnel,” he said.
“They have already said that if we are willing to move more through Jordan as we draw down, they are willing” to allow it, Moores said.
Though Jordan has close ties to Washington, popular sentiment has been solidly against the war in Iraq.
The route to Jordan would take the military through the desert province of Anbar, which was the hub of the Sunni insurgency and where Marines and Iraqi soldiers fought some of their bloodiest battles. An uprising by local Sunni tribes in late 2006 forced insurgents from their Anbar strongholds in one of the pivotal moments of the war.
Meanwhile, the Army has shipped hundreds of armored and non-armored vehicles to Kuwait, said Army. Col. Ed Dorman, who works on logistics and supply for Multi-National Corps Iraq.
“We’re already reducing what we have on hand,” he said, adding that the equipment has been returned to bases in Kuwait or the United States.
Much of the Army equipment being moved is material no longer used, such as older mine-resistant vehicles — known as MRAPs — that can be used for training.
Even if the United States sticks to the longer-range withdrawal plans, it still has less than three years to determine how to get its forces and equipment out of Iraq.
“You don’t take everything out,” Moores said, adding that some items, such as food, water, barricades and sandbags may be left.
Moores said the Corps has been working on a withdrawal plan with a 2010 deadline in mind for the Marines, which has been preparing to expand its presence in Afghanistan.
“If our focus is correct and our thought process is correct, we are well on our way with our planning,” he said. “It won’t be a mass exodus. It will be a gradual withdrawal.”