JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — There is no more visible sign that America is putting the Iraq war behind it than the colossal operation to get its stuff out: 20,000 soldiers, nearly a sixth of the force here, assigned to a logistical effort aimed at dismantling some 300 bases and shipping out 1.5 million pieces of equipment, from tanks to coffee makers.It is the largest movement of soldiers and matériel in more than four decades, the military said.
“It’s a real Rubik’s Cube,” Brig. Gen. Paul L. Wentz, the commander of the Army’s logistical soldiers, said in an interview at this sprawling military complex north of Baghdad, which will serve as the command center for the withdrawal effort.
But just as the buildup in the Kuwaiti desert before the 2003 invasion made it plain that the United States was almost certain to go to war, the preparations for withdrawal just as clearly point to the end of the American military role here. Reversing the process, even if Iraq’s relative stability deteriorates into violence, becomes harder every day.
The scale of the withdrawal is staggering. Consider a comparison with the Persian Gulf war in 1991: it lasted 1,012 hours, or about six weeks, and when it was over, Lt. Gen. William G. Pagonis, in charge of the Army’s logistical operations at the time, wrote a book, “Moving Mountains” (Harvard Business Press Books, 1992), about the challenges of moving soldiers and equipment in and out of the theater.
He called the undertaking the equivalent of moving all the people of Alaska, along with their belongings, to the other side of the world “in short order.”
In August, about 3,000 shipping containers and 2,000 vehicles were shipped out of Iraq, and the heavy lifting is just beginning.
“When the brigade combat teams come out, I want to be in a position where I don’t have to deal with the excess equipment and matériel at the same time,” General Wentz said.
In a conference room here at the base, dozens of soldiers monitor the movements of every American truck in the country on two large flat-screen televisions, using GPS technology and radio communications, getting current information about attacks and the progress of convoys. Every movement is planned about 96 hours in advance to allow for rehearsals and readjustments.
As the pace of withdrawal is stepped up, the American military must also assuage the worries of Iraqi politicians who want the American troops to be less visible, so most missions are carried out in the dark of night.
The Americans hope that by next spring, they will be operating from what General Wentz described as a hub-and-spoke system, with 6 supersize bases and 13 smaller ones. Fewer bases means traveling greater distances, at greater risk.
“The distance between two points does not get any shorter,” said Colonel Pagonis, asserting that the logisticians in his command — known as “loggies” — are also warriors.
Turning the former American bases over to the Iraqis, and deciding what to give them, have proved to be among the biggest challenges.
Until May, there was no system in place even to figure out who legally owned the property where Americans had set up camp. This led to scenes like the one at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, where a local Iraqi commander showed up essentially demanding a list of items that the Americans were not ready to turn over.
So last spring, panels made up of Iraqi and American officials were set up to help work through some of these issues.
Congress has limited the total value of equipment — like computers and furniture — that the military can leave to the Iraqis to roughly $15 million per base, but that amount does not include items considered part of the infrastructure, like buildings, sewerage and power facilities.
Even coming up with a value for some of the American investments is hard because in many cases the initial costs were inflated by large outlays for security.
Commanders say it is often simply more economical to turn over more equipment to the Iraqis because the cost of moving it is prohibitive. Last month, the military announced the end of its detention operations at Camp Bucca on the Kuwaiti border and said that $50 million worth of infrastructure and equipment would be given to the Iraqis.
The United States has also brokered a deal with an Iraqi trucking network, led by a coalition of tribal sheiks, to move equipment that is not deemed sensitive between bases. The truckers currently move about 3 percent of all American matériel here, commanders said.