In the Former Cradle of Iraq's Insurgency, a U.S. Military Base Prepares to Close

U.S. combat troops will soon depart Camp Fallujah, which saw some of the conflict's bloodiest battles.

Recruits who want to be part of a new provincial security force listen to an Iraqi military officer during training at Camp Fallujah near Fallujah, Iraq.

Provincial security force recruits listen to an Iraqi military officer during training at Camp Fallujah, Iraq.

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FALLUJAH, IRAQ— Anbar Province has been the site of some of the Iraq war's darkest episodes, but in a sign of how much violence has dropped here, one of the main U.S. bases is closing its gates.

Camp Fallujah, the sprawling, 2,000-acre facility located just outside the city, will be fully stripped of U.S. equipment in February. The U.S. command here will depart on November 14, leaving behind a skeleton crew to clean up.

It's bittersweet for many of the marines, some of whom have spent more time within the barbed wire and concrete perimeter over the past few years than they have in their homes stateside.

Anbar was the cradle of the Sunni-led insurgency that plagued U.S. forces for the first four years of the conflict. In 2004, four contractors were killed and mutilated, their bodies set afire and strung from a bridge. The next year, marines killed 24 civilians in the city of Haditha. In nearby Fallujah, marines fought two of the largest battles of the war, their bloodiest urban combat since Vietnam.

Today, the Sunni-dominated province is peaceful enough that it's time to shift more responsibility to the Iraqis, Marine commanders say.

The number of marines in Anbar won't decline—at least not yet—but the closing is symbolic of what the commanding general here calls the "last 10 yards of the mission." Control of the province writ large was transferred to the government of Iraq in September as the number of violent incidents hovers around 10 per week, down from dozens per day at the height of the insurgency.

Before the U.S. invasion, the site of the military camp was once home to Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, a military group armed with tanks and artillery that Saddam Hussein used for years to keep order in Fallujah. For another few weeks, it's home to Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of forces in the coalition's operating area of western Iraq, a command that will relocate next month.

Kelly says that the dramatic improvement in security in the past 12 months means that the camp can be shifted to Iraqi control. "The need for a base as large as Camp Fallujah has passed," he says.

The dusty desert camp once housed some 8,700 soldiers, contractors, and other assorted personnel. About 4,500 of those troops remain.

"It will still be a functional base when we leave it, but what happens to it after that is up to the Iraq government," says Maj. James Gladden, 34, who is in charge of day-to-day camp operations. The marines call him the "mayor."

Gladden, a Westport, Conn., native, is also in charge of demilitarizing the facility, which means taking away the power station, offices, concrete walls, and other property of the U.S. government. The helicopter landing zone will also disappear, and there will be some environmental cleanup.

A water system that includes a 6.5 million-gallon lake will remain, as will the 200 permanent buildings within the walls. A wastewater treatment plant will also stay behind. "It took us five years to build it up, and it's coming down in six months," says Master Gunnery Sgt. Ray Sifuentes, 47, an engineer who oversees elements of the demilitarization process.

But the future is still uncertain for Anbar province and Camp Fallujah. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad has shown little enthusiasm for Sunni Anbar, and the province's calls for more resources from the central government often go unanswered.

The violence, which has abated, could easily flare up again, commanders say.

Iraqi government delegations have visited the base twice in the past year, says Gladden, weighing different options for its future use. Those plans fell through, and the future is unclear.

"If you ask me," says one American commander, "I bet it'll be looted and everything worth taking will be carted away."