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Amid Talk of Withdrawal, Pentagon Is Taking Steps For

Longer Stay in Iraq

BY Eli Lake - Staff Reporter of the Sun


January 14, 2005

WASHINGTON - As the Bush administration drops hints about withdrawing troops from Iraq as early as this year, the Pentagon is building a permanent military communications system that suggests American soldiers will be in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

The new network, known as Central Iraq Microwave System, will eventually consist of up to 12 communications towers throughout Iraq and fiber-optic cables connecting Camp Victory, located outside of Baghdad, to other coalition bases in the country, according to three sources familiar with the project. The land-based system will replace the tactical communications network the Army and Marines have been using in Iraq. That network relied primarily on satellites and is much easier to dismantle. The contract for the new communications system covering central Iraq, won by Galaxy Scientific Corporation, is worth about $10 million.

The New York Sun learned of the investment in the communications system at a time when Washington is abuzz with speculation that the president may this year bring home many of the 150,000 American soldiers serving in Iraq. Earlier this week on National Public Radio, Secretary of State Powell said that as Iraqi security services assume more responsibility in fighting insurgents, he would expect the number of American soldiers on the ground there to decline. "With the assumption of that greater burden, the burden on our troops should go down, and we should start to see our numbers going in the other direction," he said.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld dispatched to Iraq a retired four-star general, Gary Luck, who was a key adviser to General Franks in developing the plan for the invasion, to assess America's options in Iraq. He is due to present his report next week. Press outlets have speculated that General Luck's visit indicates the Pentagon may be considering an exit strategy to coincide with the January 30 elections for Iraq's legislature. The United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition likely to command the most seats in the new Parliament, is comprised of Shiite parties that in the past have called for the end of the American occupation in Iraq. The second plank of their platform says a new government should negotiate a withdrawal date upon assuming power.

The new projects to build the CIMS network do not necessarily mean the number of American troops would not diminish over time. But according to experts as well as some Pentagon officials, the new investments indicate that there will at least be some level of American forces in Iraq for several years to come.

A senior defense policy expert for the American Enterprise Institute, Thomas Donnelly, told the Sun that the kind of investment in the communications system is similar to the systems established during the Cold War in West Germany and more recently in the Balkans, two locations where American soldiers are still serving today. "This is the kind of investment that is reflective of the strategic commitment and intention to continue a military presence in Iraq," Mr. Donnelly said. "This is one of the indicators of an intention to stay, these kinds of communications networks."

The assistant project manager for CIMS, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Schafer, rejected the notion that the system was a permanent one. In an e-mail message to the Sun he wrote, "CIMS will connect major bases serving U.S. and coalition forces in Central Iraq with much greater reliability. CIMS will be much less costly to maintain, reduce costly satellite costs, and free up tactical signal forces, but does not necessarily signal more permanence."

Other Pentagon officials familiar with the project told the Sun that its scope, which plans to eventually connect American bases in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and even Afghanistan, indicates a commitment to a long-term presence in the region, including Iraq.

"I believe this terrestrial microwave system going in, whose final target is Afghanistan, together with such recent signals as a new military relationship between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, are further indications of the long-term implementation of the Bush vision to bring democracy to the Middle East," a former CIA officer and founder of the CIA's counterterrorism center, Duane Clarridge, said in an interview.

Mr. Clarridge, who has spent four months in Iraq in the last year and is the former chief of Arab operations for the CIA's clandestine service, added, "People should get realistic and think in terms of our presence being in Iraq for a generation or until democratic stability in the region is reached."

The military concept underlying the new military communications network is called commercialization by experts in the field because the microwave towers and cables could also be used for nonmilitary uses like telephone and cell phone lines.

The vice director for the Navy's command, control, communications, and computer systems, Rear Admiral Nancy Brown, gave an interview in November to Signal Magazine in which she said the new network could eventually be turned over to the Iraqi government for commercial use. "Previous commercialization efforts supported only a few thousand troops in a handful of base camps," she told the magazine, the official publication of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. "The major and crucial difference between the OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] commercialization effort and previous precedents set in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan was the sheer magnitude of the undertaking. This new effort will support tens of thousands of troops in multiple sites throughout a region the size of the state of Texas."