Nightly News   |  December 11, 2011

US bases in Iraq becoming 'ghost towns'

Across Iraq, U.S. troops are packing up everything and preparing to leave the country, leaving many bases surreally quiet. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

LESTER HOLT, anchor: Overseas now to Iraq where tonight just a few thousand US troops remain, and they're expected home by the holidays as the US withdraws near -- withdrawal nears its end. Our chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel , has been covering the war since the beginning. He joins us from Baghdad again tonight. Richard , good evening.

RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Good evening, Lester . After nearly nine years, US troops are leaving Iraq , and the cycle of deployment after deployment to this country is ending. There's a surreal feeling on US bases these days. Camp Taji , 12 miles north of Baghdad , was once a hug American air base. Now...

Sergeant CHRISTOPHER REDDICK: It's not too many people here.

ENGEL: It's very different. You go outside and you look around.

Sgt. REDDICK: It's like a ghost town.

ENGEL: Nobody home . It's very strange.

Sgt. REDDICK: Yeah.

ENGEL: Sergeant Christopher Reddick was only 11 years old when this war started. Now he's one of just a few hundred troops still in Baghdad , packing up.

Sgt. REDDICK: Been over here a while, and now I get to go home to my family.

ENGEL: Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis is taking a last look at family photos before his computer goes in a bag, too. About a million troops deployed to Iraq over nearly nine years, and it's come down to this. Everything you have that's still in the country 's going to go in here, and then you're done.

Lieutenant Colonel RAY DAVIS: That's it.

ENGEL: And everyone else is doing the exact same thing?

Lt. Col. DAVIS: We're all down to one bag.

ENGEL: There are a thousand buildings on Taji , nearly all now vacant. At it's peak, this was a military city, with 45,000 American troops and contractors. It was so busy, the troops were required to wear reflective belts so they wouldn't be run over by all the humvee traffic. Now the military vehicles are gone, and there's hardly anyone left. Awkwardly named containerized housing units, CHUs in military speak, have ribbons on the doors to show each one has been cleared and locked. Nearby, soldiers have left notes on a field of destroyed Iraqi weapons that already look like relics from a conflict long ago. But what will be the legacy of America 's biggest military mission since Vietnam ?

Unidentified Soldier: Always clear.

ENGEL: Military commanders say they're confident it will be positive.

Colonel DAVID CAREY (Task Force Normandy): We have set Iraq up for success. They are capable of maintaining internal security, and they are well on their way to becoming a sovereign power that's a partner to the United States .

ENGEL: But the view is different at Baghdad 's Shabandar Cafe . Shamil Abdul Qadir , an author and historian. says Iraqis will not judge this war kindly.

Mr. SHAMIL ABDUL QADIR:

ENGEL: He says, 'During Saddam 's days, we did not have this hell. Yes, under Saddam there was a single hard rule. There were arrests and there was no freedom. But you could go home at 4 AM . Now you're afraid to walk the streets at 4 in the afternoon,' he says. But troops are leaving and leaving behind concrete sprawls in the desert and a country with an uncertain future. While US troops are leaving, Lester , the American embassy here is dramatically expanding. And even after all the troops leave, there will still be about 16,000 to 17,000 diplomats, government officials, and contractors staying

behind. Lester: Richard Engel back in Baghdad tonight for us. Thank you,

HOLT: