WASHINGTON - The United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project U.S. influence into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration officials say.
U.S. military officials, in interviews last week, spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq - one at the international airport just outside Baghdad; another at Tallil, near Nasiriyah in the south; the third at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert, along the old oil pipeline that runs to Jordan; and the last at the Bashur air field in the Kurdish north.
The military is already using these bases to support continuing operations against the remnants of the old government, to deliver supplies and relief aid, and to make reconnaissance patrols. But as the invasion force withdraws in the months ahead, turning over control to a new Iraqi government, Pentagon officials expect to gain access to the bases in the event of a future crisis.
Whether that can be arranged depends on relations between Washington and whoever takes control in Baghdad. If the ties are close enough, the military relationship could become one of the most striking developments in a strategic revolution playing out across the Middle East and Southwest Asia, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.
A military foothold in Iraq would be felt across the border in Syria, and, in combination with the continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan, it would virtually surround Iran with a new web of U.S. influence.
"There will be some kind of a long-term defense relationship with a new Iraq, similar to Afghanistan," said one senior administration official. "The scope of that has yet to be defined - whether it will be full-up operational bases, smaller forward operating bases or just plain access."
These goals do not contradict the administration's official policy of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, officials say. The United States is acutely aware that the growing U.S. presence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia invites charges of empire-building and might create new targets for terrorists.
Trying to ease strains
So without fanfare, the Pentagon has also begun to shrink its military footprint in the region, trying to ease domestic strains in Turkey and Jordan.
In a particularly important development, officials said the United States was likely to reduce U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. The main reason for that presence was to protect the Saudi government from the threat Iraq has posed since its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
In Turkey, where a newly elected government bowed to domestic pressure and denied the Pentagon access to bases and supply lines for the war with Iraq, the United States has withdrawn nearly all of its 50 attack and support airplanes at the Incirlik air base, from which they flew patrols over Iraq's north for more than a decade.
Turkish officials say a new postwar security arrangement with Washington will emerge.
"These issues will define a new relationship and a new U.S. presence abroad," said Faruk Logoglu, Turkey's ambassador to the United States. "But the need for an American presence in the region will not be diminished."
Regardless of how quickly the Americans reverse the buildup of the past several months, it is plain that since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a concerted diplomatic and military effort to win permission for U.S. forces to operate from the formerly communist nations of Eastern Europe, across the Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and across Central Asia, from the periphery of Russia to Pakistan's ports on the Indian Ocean.
It is a swath of Western influence not seen for generations.
These bases and access agreements have established an expanded U.S. presence, or deepened alliance ties, throughout one of the world's most strategic regions.
"The attacks of Sept. 11 changed more than just the terrorism picture," said one senior administration official. "On Sept. 11, we woke up and found ourselves in Central Asia. We found ourselves in Eastern Europe as never before, as the gateway to Central Asia and the Middle East."
The newest security agreements will come in Iraq. Col. John Dobbins, commander of Tallil Forward Air Base, said the Air Force plan envisioned "probably two bases that will stay in Iraq for an amount of time."
"That amount of time, obviously, is an unknown," he added.
In addition to Tallil, the other base for the Air Force is at Bashur, in the north, Pentagon officials said. The Army currently holds the Baghdad airport. The H-1 base in the west has allowed Special Operations forces to move out of their secret bases in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and set up a forward headquarters.