By Senior National Security Producer Charley Keyes
The 8-year war in Iraq is ending not with shock and awe but with clouds of dust and diesel exhaust, and the grinding gears of the big trucks pulling out hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment.
The Pentagon said Thursday that the withdrawal is on schedule and that U.S. troop levels are now below 34,000, with less than two months to get the rest out.
Most U.S. personnel are airlifted out, primarily through Kuwait, but some directly to the United States. And the giant truck convoys are criss-crossing the map of Iraq, with each convoy a military operation and a logistical challenge.
"There's about 55 logistic convoys traveling the width and breadth of Iraq," Maj. Gen. Thomas Spoehr said about each day's operations. "That equates to about 1,650 trucks driven by brave men and women, both military and contractors."
Spoehr, who is the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, was talking to journalists at the Pentagon Thursday afternoon via a video-link from the field.
And he predicted that most of the U.S. military will be out well before the New Years eve deadline, as CNN first reported in October.
"I think it is clear to me that by the time we get to about mid-December or so, the vast majority of the U.S. forces in Iraq we plan to have them withdrawn"
Despite major security improvements, dangers remain.
"This is not a rush to the exits," Spoehr said. "So it is a measured plan that ensures our continued force protection at every step of the operation."
That plan requires that each convoy be preceded by intelligence units and a military force clearing the road. Military forces accompany the convoys. "Then if they get in trouble then of course the U.S. forces ... stand behind them with all kinds of combat power and medical care should they need it."
Spoehr said that in 2006 and 2007 there were as many as 149 attacks a day in Iraq. Now that has declined to 14 a day. The convoys have been targeted with roadside bombs.
And the U.S. military, worried that too much information had been released earlier about pulling back from bases inside Iraq, is playing it close to the vest now.
"Our withdrawal plan, the numbers of troops per week and the bases that will transition is not being released, and we are doing that to ensure the protection of our service members." Spoehr explained.
He carefully walked past a question about whether the U.S. was beefing up U.S. troop levels in Kuwait as it was drawing down in Iraq, in order to be able to respond quickly to any emergency.
"I have no special information on that; I think those are the kinds of decisions that are made between the United States and the government of Kuwait and not at my level," Spoehr said.
The general said historians may have to look all the way back to World War II to see an operation of this scope, to the Red Ball Express, which saw hundreds of trucks rolling through Europe every day to keep U.S. forces supplied with gasoline in the weeks after the D-Day invasion in 1944.
"It is an immense operation," he said of what is happening every day in Iraq.
Some equipment is being left behind for Iraqis. And the U.S. military also is lending vehicles and reconnaissance systems to the State Department, now facing the prospect,in just eight weeks, of taking full responsibility for protection of American diplomats and aid workers.