World News

Huge U.S. air base returned to Iraqi control

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military has handed over to the Iraqi government its 2nd largest Iraq base, a joint army and air force complex that housed some 36,000 American troops and contractors at the peak of the war, U.S. officials said.

Joint Base Balad was returned to Iraqi control on Tuesday with the departure of the last members of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing as the United States continued the withdrawal of all forces from Iraq by year end.

About 30,000 troops remain in the country, which the United States invaded in 2003. Washington has announced that it will withdraw all its troops by the end of this year after failing to agree with Baghdad on a plan to keep a scaled-down presence.

Before the war, Balad, located north of Baghdad, was known as al-Bakr Air Base after Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, Iraq’s president before Saddam Hussein. U.S. forces captured it in April 2003, renaming it Camp Anaconda and later Joint Base Balad.

Its two 11,000 foot runways made Balad the major logistics centre for U.S. forces in Iraq after the invasion that toppled Saddam, and one of the busiest airports in the world.

“In 2006 Balad had 27,500 takeoffs and landings per month, second only to Heathrow airport in London,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Brooks, a U.S. military historian.

Balad’s peak population made it second in size only to Victory Base, the U.S. war command centre in Baghdad that will be returned to Iraqi control in December.

Balad took so much mortar fire soldiers began calling it “Mortaritaville,” a play on the song “Margaritaville” by American singer Jimmy Buffett.

Brooks said it housed the most sophisticated medical facility in Iraq, which boasted a 98 percent survival rate for the wounded taken there for treatment.

“If you made it to Balad alive, you were going to leave Balad alive,” he said.

From a peak of 505 bases in Iraq, U.S. forces have 11 left.

Reporting by Jim Loney; Editing by Peter Graff