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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 19:04 GMT 20:04 UK
Inside the al-Asad air base
Oliver Poole is a British journalist who has twice visited the huge US air base at al-Asad, in western Iraq. He told the BBC News website what it was like.

Al-Asad base is a massive facility which is based around what was originally an Iraqi army air force base. It's right in the middle of the desert, and surrounded on all sides by scrublands and desert and rocks.

Bus on al-Asad base, western Iraq (image courtesy public affairs dept, al-Asad base)
The base has two bus routes (image courtesy public affairs dept, al-Asad base)
When you drive in, you go through a series of outer fences. Then you drive through where the old Iraqi air force base was, and see all the debris that remains from that - destroyed planes, destroyed vehicles, a vast amount of rusting kit.

As you emerge into the American section, you come across much better roads, freshly Tarmacked. In many ways they've tried to recreate the set-up of a modern US suburban town, but obviously within the context that it's a military base within the deserts of western Iraq.

The overriding impression is one of sand and dust, but the actual layout is very similar. It has a grid network, many of the same signs, they have the same US Post Office mailboxes.

There are two bus routes there, which gives some idea of the scale.

Old MiG fighter jet at al-Asad air base, Iraq (image courtesy public affairs dept, al-Asad)
Part of the base is littered with Iraqi Air Force debris (image courtesy al-Asad)
They've taken a very urban planning approach, with residential areas, work areas, and then recreational areas. The residential areas consist of tents, and then large accommodation blocks, then they also have pods - individual containers, in which one soldier or air force person will live.

The [accommodation] pods are quite basic - they're about the same size as a shipping container. They're basic, you just get a bed, a mattress, a chair, but they do have fantastically good air-conditioning. Because they are there for so long, many of [the soldiers] customise their accommodation - there are some Iraqi shops where you can buy rugs, they've got their magazines, they have pin-up pictures of girls, pictures of their family.

The recreational areas have fantastic facilities - the amount of money they throw at them! The army does a year-long tour, and they want to prevent them going too barking mad. There is a cinema, number of restaurants - including many US chains - sandwich bars, pizza restaurants, coffee shops...

Troops at a fast-food restaurant on al-Asad base, western Iraq
Troops can enjoy their favourite fast food
They have this special recreational area - they call it an MWR centre, a Morale, Welfare and Recreation centre - and in there they have designated contractors who are civilians brought in purely to provide a range of entertainment services for the troops. Those include things like dance nights - hip-hop on Friday, salsa on Saturday, Country and Western on a Saturday.

The soldiers also compete in computer games - they're all obsessed by this game called Halo, which is a kind of shoot 'em up game, so have a Halo league, and knock-out competitions, so they give a cup to the person who is the best at that in the whole place.

And then of course there are the food halls, which also are scattered around, these are massive affairs, the size of a plane hangar. The amount of food they have is unbelievable. Everything from ice-cream, massive salad bars, chocolate chip cookies, any kind of soft drink that you want - they're all obsessed by their Red Bulls for example.

The on-base stores are called the PX. There are a number there - you can buy anything from peanut butter, to big-screen TVs, Playstations, ghetto blasters, curling tongs...

Soldiers queue to buy CDs in a PX store on al-Asad base, western Iraq
The PX stores offer a vast array of products for sale
The logistical ability of what they do is huge - but that's one of the reasons these superbases are all built around big airbases: because it's the easiest way to get it in. You just stick it on the back of a C130 [cargo plane], and in it all comes.

If you go to smaller bases in the middle of nowhere, the range of amenities and food they get is so much less, and that's because it's so much more dangerous getting those convoys up the road. They just don't want to take the risk.

They also have to bring water in. It's not only the fact that they don't have local water resources and therefore need to bring it in, it's that they have a policy that they won't provide soldiers with any locally made products, because they're all from America, and they've all grown up on American diets, and therefore they've all got very sensitive stomachs, basically.

A crossroads at al-Asad base, western Iraq (image courtesy public affairs dept, al-Asad)
Road signs look familiar - apart from the Arabic translation (image courtesy al-Asad)
On the base there are about three or four Iraqi restaurants, used by the Iraqi contract workers who do the cleaning and so on, on the base. On the door as you go in there's a sign from the preventative medical health officer banning US soldiers from eating there, in case they get ill. They don't want people to get food poisoning.

[As for non-American workers,] they do have a vast amount of South Asians working there, in the dining halls. There are also Iraqi army troops based there, and they themselves have their own support staff who are also Iraqi.

Al-Asad provides support for all the mini-bases, scattered around western Anbar, and it's the centre of the administrative network. I'd guess that three-quarters of people on base never leave.


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