More than three million pieces of military equipment spread throughout Iraq and worth around $36.4 billion (R275 billion) must be accounted for before a US troop withdrawal due by the end of 2011.
“I can’t believe how much crap has accumulated,” said Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Sanders at a US military transport hub in Kuwait, returning to Iraq to catalogue equipment.
“Nobody really paid attention to accountability until the drawdown push. A lot of squadrons are complaining: ‘Why just because I’m the last out here do I have to clean up after everyone?'” she added.
The US Third Army, responsible for equipment and personnel transfer, is preparing for a surge in activity.
Violence has fallen sharply in Iraq since the worst of the sectarian bloodshed triggered by the US invasion, Iraq’s army has grown in size and confidence, and the country’s leaders are keen to assert Iraqi sovereignty and independence.
But much hinges on the outcome of a general election in January, a milestone for Iraq’s fragile democracy, and on whether Iraq can defend itself as US forces withdraw.
Twin suicide bombs that killed at least 155 people in Baghdad last week cast doubt on the abilities of Iraq’s security forces. US military leaders are reluctant to risk shifting assets out of Iraq too fast in case they might be needed again.
“We’re gearing up, given a peaceful, successful election, for a dramatic increase in drawing down equipment,” said Brigadier General Mark MacCarley, a senior military logistician, at Camp Arifjan, the Third Army’s headquarters in Kuwait.
Some work has been done, despite the uncertainty.
The number of US military vehicles moved out of Iraq has recently doubled to about 3000 a month and units have been assigned to track down and register US equipment before it is either repatriated, redeployed, sold off or given free to Iraq.
Expansion of customs capacity, such as vast halls to search departing troops and their bags and workshops to clean vehicles before their return to the United States, has started.
MacCarley promised the “best planned and best executed” transfer of personnel and equipment in modern military history, and was determined to avoid the mistakes of the 1991 US-led Desert Storm campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
“We had significant losses of equipment. Some was found years later, some was lost.
Most US equipment and personnel leaving Iraq goes through Kuwait, the main gateway to US operations in the Middle East and a hub for troops deploying to Afghanistan.
At a sprawling tent city for US military personnel going through Kuwait, officials are preparing for the departure of more than 100 000 US troops from Iraq. “It’s like herding cats, we have so many personnel going through,” said camp transit director Lieutenant Colonel Cecile Warren.
The camp handles 2000 to 3000 people a day, with most streaming off planes and first heading for the golden arches of the on-site McDonald’s burger outlet.
At one tent, half the space is dedicated to processing mostly grim-faced troops for their next deployment, and the other half the “happy side” deals with troops going home.