WASHINGTON – During the first presidential debate, Sen. John Kerry suggested that the U.S. military is planning to make 14 bases now in Iraq "a permanent concept."
While the major media overlooked the remark, instead critiquing the style and performance of the candidates, security analysts are debating whether the United States plans to use the bases, in various stages of construction, as strategic U.S. outposts in the broader War on Terror (search).
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., outfit that specializes in gathering national security and defense data, said researchers at his firm culled military news dispatches and can "conclusively identify" nine of these so-called "enduring bases," and possibly three more that are "too vague to pin down."
Each location, he told FOXNews.com, can house about 8,000 troops. "They are being constructed to a standard where they will be able to last for years," he said.
News of the "enduring bases," Pentagon terminology for such facilities, first came to light in a March 2004 article by the Chicago Tribune. Calling them "long-term encampments" for the thousands of U.S. soldiers expected to serve in Iraq for at least two years, the newspaper nonetheless quoted coalition officials as saying no policy is in place for the bases to serve as a permanent or even long-term headquarters for the United States in the Gulf region.
But Pike said several encampments, some of them already known, are definitely suited for the long haul. His group identifies places like Camp Anaconda in Balad, Camp Cooke in Taji, Post Freedom in Mosul, Camp Victory at Baghdad airfield and Camp Renegade in Kirkuk.
Pentagon and Central Command (search) officials told FOXNews.com they have no plans to make the bases permanent. They added that the United States is only in Iraq at the will of the government there, and will leave when the nation is safe or when coalition troops are asked to leave, whichever comes first. Then, the bases would become permanent Iraqi facilities.
"The only ‘enduring’ quality to our policy in Iraq is our commitment to assisting the Iraqi people as they build a democratic and prosperous and peaceful Iraq," said Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a spokesman for the Department of Defense.
In April 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed any serious talk of a permanent military presence in Iraq. His comments followed an April 20, 2003, New York Times story that suggested that the emerging government in Iraq would grant the U.S. future access to military bases there.
He suggested such bases would be unnecessary. "We have plenty of friends and ... ability to work with them and have locations for things that help to contribute to stability in the region."
Currently, the United States has more than 700 military bases in 130 countries, including the Persian Gulf region nations of Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. Thousands of U.S. troops have been based in Germany, Turkey, Japan and South Korea for 50 years or longer.
Despite the denials, no one seems to know what the military relationship with a newly elected Iraqi government will look like.
"My gut hunch is we will be there for the better part of a decade," said Pike, who added that even if and when Iraq is stabilized, the country has no sizable armed services to defend itself and would need the assistance of the United States, perhaps even a presence as great as 50,000 troops over the next several years, until "the habits of pluralism and civil civic society become firmly rooted.
"It makes perfect sense to me," he said.
Military analyst Col. David Hunt (Ret.) said his sources on the ground indicate that the military will be in Iraq for at least five years, and he believes that if asked, the United States will remain in the country for some time to fight the broader War on Terror.
"Yes, they are permanent," he said of the bases. "Building bases there is a good idea, to fight the War on Terror and to keep pressure on the Middle East."
While others agree that the worst-case scenario would be "to cut and run" on the Iraqis, they say even the talk of a long-term or permanent military presence is sure to inflame tensions and counteract any positive outcomes of ousting dictator Saddam Hussein.
"What we need to do in Iraq is do what we need to do to make it safe there and then turn it over to the Iraqis," said Rick Barton, director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search).
"After the elections are held and security forces are in place, then I think the priority would be withdrawing as many U.S. forces as possible," said James Carafano, a national security expert with the Heritage Foundation (search).
Gordon Adams, director of security studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., suggests both Bush and Kerry would begin withdrawal as soon as it is politically viable, most likely after the expected Iraqi elections in January.
"In the meantime, external military forces are a target — if you leave foreign forces in the country you have to deal with the fact that they are a target," Adams said.
As for the potentially long-term presence in Iraq as a foothold in the War on Terror, he called it "a recruiting tool for terrorists."
"If you want to win Iraq, you have to have a stable and coherent country and in the long term eliminate excuses for terrorists to go into Iraq," he said. "I don’t think a long-term presence is in U.S. interests."
Carafano suggested that Rumsfeld was right when he said Iraq was not necessary to maintaining a strategic presence in the Middle East. He said the new "lily pad" approach in which the U.S. doesn’t build its own bases, but gets access to other countries’ facilities, will work just fine.
"I think in the 21st century it makes better sense to have a lighter footprint than a big boot," he said.