By Jim Loney
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military passed a milestone in its pending withdrawal from Iraq on Friday, vacating its vast main base near Baghdad airport that once housed the American war operations hub and hosted a captive Saddam Hussein before his execution.
Victory Base Complex, a site ringed by 42 kilometres (27 miles) of blast walls and razor wire, was the U.S. nerve center for the Iraq war almost from the moment American troops entered the capital and pulled down Saddam's statue in 2003.
The handover of Victory Base to Iraq's government was a big step in the U.S. pullout from Iraq as Washington consolidates its presence in Baghdad at its sprawling embassy on the Tigris River in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone.
Fewer than 500 U.S. troops remain in the capital, according to a U.S. official.
About 12,000 troops are still in Iraq, down from a peak of about 170,000 at the height of the war. All of the remaining forces are due to leave by the end of this year, except for a small contingent of under 200 attached to the U.S. embassy.
"The Victory Base Complex was officially signed over to the receivership of the Iraqi government this morning," Colonel Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said by email. "The base is no longer under U.S. control and is now under the full authority of the Government of Iraq."
American forces have been closing down operations for months at the Victory complex, which once housed around 42,000 U.S. military personnel and another 20,000 support staff.
The top U.S. war leaders from Ricardo Sanchez to David Petraeus to the current commander, General Lloyd Austin, lived at one of Saddam's villas on the base, a 20-room, 25,000-square-foot mansion where King Hussein of Jordan was said to have liked to fish off the back porch during Saddam's reign.
LEGACY OF SADDAM'S LIFE OF LUXURY
U.S. officials said Saddam built the network of palaces and villas and a complex of lakes on the grounds, including his Victory over America palace feting the 1991 Gulf War, in which U.S. forces drove Iraq out of Kuwait, and the Victory over Iran palace commemorating the 1980s campaign against his neighbor.
U.S. forces used as their war operations center Saddam's al-Faw Palace, a 450,000-square-foot edifice of 62 rooms, including 29 bathrooms, designed with France's Versailles in mind and decorated with French provincial furniture.
U.S. officials said they left behind a massive, throne-like wooden chair given to Saddam by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Saddam Hussein was imprisoned at Victory Base for about two years in a maximum-security facility built in the bombed wreckage of a villa once used by security forces headed by his son Uday, U.S. officials said.
"Building 114," as U.S. troops knew it, was located on a small island in a lake, connected by a causeway and a drawbridge, and was shared by Saddam and his henchman, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, or Chemical Ali. Both were executed.
The base was a home-away-from-home for hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who served in Iraq and was thoroughly Americanized over the course of eight years with everything from water and power plants to Burger King and Subway restaurants.
U.S. soldiers could be seen jogging around the lakes in off-duty hours or smacking golf balls into the water from the terraces of Saddam's palaces.
"There is a sense of excitement about leaving because the base because it means we're heading home," said Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Brooks, a U.S. military historian.
"Mainly it's a sense of satisfaction over a job done to the best of our abilities and the knowledge that we left it better than we found it."