updated 8/1/2007 8:14:29 PM ET 2007-08-02T00:14:29

Bright flashing lights signal the next convoy of flatbed trucks, poised to move U.S. military equipment into Iraq.

But to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, riding in a helicopter over the U.S. base in Kuwait's capital, the more relevant sight is the broad expanse of surrounding vacant land. It is capable of holding the tens of thousands of vehicles and other equipment that would come out of Iraq when U.S. troops begin to leave in large numbers.

The key question in Washington these days is how soon those forces should get out of Iraq. The focus in this Persian Gulf city is just on how.

In a 40-minute tour, Gates got a bird's-eye view of two of the most critical parts of an Iraq exit plan: Camp Arifjan, the logistical hub of the war and the busy Shuaiba Port just south of Kuwait City where ships carry loads of equipment heading in and out of Iraq.

"It's not glitzy or glamorous," said Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, the commanding general of 3rd Army based at Arifjan. Everything from tanks to toilet paper goes through Kuwait City en route to the battlefield, he said.

If Whitcomb needs to get everything out, he said he could handle more than what some commanders have said would preferably be a methodical pace of one brigade per month; Whitcomb just does not know how much more.

In any case, he said, "I don't think the decision is going to be the California Gold Rush. ... It has to be a very deliberate, thoughtful coming out. You can't just come down helter-skelter."

The process is painstaking.

At Camp Arifjan, things leaving Iraq are sorted into various groups, including trash, damaged equipment, classified materials, and vehicles heading home. A tank, for example, has to be cleaned out. It can take four days to thoroughly wash it so it can pass muster with Agriculture Department inspectors who must prevent any parasites from entering the United States. Then it must go through a Customs inspection.

All told, it can take from 10 days to two weeks to get a piece of equipment through the process.

Leaving the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City, the five helicopters carrying Gates, his staff and reporters traveling with him headed south over the bright lights of the bustling city, past the burning smoke stacks dotting one of the largest oil refineries, and across wide stretches of desert.

At the Shuaiba Port, two berths are largely reserved for the U.S., including commercial and military ships carrying equipment for a military unit deploying to Iraq. Once unloaded, the cargo is driven into Iraq by a convoy.

According to Whitcomb, he moves about 700,000 troops through Kuwait a year and saw 240,000 pass through last year just between September and December.

Ending a four-day Middle East tour
Gates, who is making his first trip to Kuwait since becoming defense chief, is wrapping up a four-day swing through the Middle East.

He spent some time urging allies to bolster their support for Iraq's embattled government. Baghdad's efforts to pass political reforms and improve security are essential to a U.S. troop withdrawal.

The Bush administration is waiting for a report, due next month from military commanders, that will gauge how well the Iraqis have met benchmarks for progress.

While neither Gates nor his military commanders will talk about deadlines for troops leaving Iraq, they acknowledge that logistical planning has begun for that eventual drawdown.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that about one brigade per month could be taken out of Iraq, in part because as one leaves, others have to take over that territory.

There are currently close to 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Many probably would have to move out through Kuwait, a tiny state about the size of Hawaii. It is bordered by Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Other options depend on agreements with countries such as Turkey, which refused to allow U.S. troops to stage an invasion of Iraq from Turkish territory in March 2003.

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