CAMP SPEICHER, Iraq (AP) — For U.S. Army Pfc. Walter Stiles, the road out of Iraq begins by kicking tires on a dusty military base near the village where Saddam Hussein was born and buried.
The drive ahead is long and dangerous — down Iraq's main north-south highway, a prime target for bombings. It's a trip he must complete several times this month, part of a security escort for 53 trucks hauling fuel and equipment out of the country in a massive push to shutter U.S. bases by the year's end.
"Don't want a tire coming off. That'd be no fun," Stiles, 25, of Huntington Beach, California, said dryly as he peered beneath the 18-wheelers and checked the trucks' batteries. The base is located outside the northern city of Tikrit and close to Saddam's birthplace and grave in the village of Ouja.
Gathered in front of the four-mile-long convoy, Staff Sgt. Robert Cowan Jr. of Knoxville, Tennessee, led his soldiers in prayer. "Everybody should be wide awake and alert," he told them. "Let's make it a good trip: safe and sound."
"It's game time."
More than 1.5 million pieces of equipment — from tanks to television sets — have been shipped out of Iraq over the last year to prepare for the planned American military withdrawal. Nearly 900,000 remain. And another 2.4 million deemed not worth the price to ship out, such as trailers and power generators, have been sold off or turned over to Iraqis.
The U.S. has promised to withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year as required by a 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad. Some 44,000 U.S. troops and an estimated 58,000 American contractors are scheduled to clear out — along with their equipment.
It's still unclear if the U.S. military will keep several thousand troops in Iraq as leaders weigh whether staunch political opposition in both nations is worth the risk. A residual U.S. force could continue to train Iraqi security forces and work to contain the growing Iranian influence in Baghdad.
The uncertainty has been a logistical nightmare for American commanders, who could be asked at the last minute to keep some equipment and manpower back — but for now must push ahead in case the withdrawal plan stands.
"For us, the enemy is time," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Ed Cardon, who was overseeing the military's path out until he left Iraq a few months ago.
"One of my goals is to maintain as much flexibility for as long as possible," Cardon said in a July interview with The Associated Press at a U.S. base outside the southern city of Nasiriyah, which will be the final stop for troops and equipment before heading into Kuwait. "But we are dealing with a hard physics problem. So there is a point where a decision needs to be made."
U.S. officials have been reluctant to state publicly a final deadline for such a decision. But Army officials say that the withdrawal will pick up speed in late September, and troops and equipment that have already left aren't likely to return even if Iraq asks U.S. forces to stay.
It's slow going on the road itself.
Behind the wheel of his team's armored truck this month, Stiles drove no faster than 40 mph. It took four hours for his Texas-based platoon from the Army's 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, to drive 88 miles and drop off the equipment at another military base, where the trucks would overnight before heading farther south.
Most cars on the bumpy Mosul-to-Basra highway whizzed by Stiles' truck.
The military radio crackled, alerting the men that a planned air patrol to monitor the convoy's route from above was canceled. Somebody swore softly. It was the only sound in a tense moment.
The squadron has not suffered any deaths or serious wounds among its soldiers, despite being part of what unit commander Lt. Col. Dolph Southerland calls "a pretty big target."
For all the tension the withdrawal process has given the Americans, it's been a bonanza for Iraqis looking to make a quick buck.
Farther down the road, in Baghdad, Iraqi vendors are hawking U.S. Army uniforms, fans and power generators, housing trailers and even latrines that have been auctioned off or simply left behind as Americans troops pull out of bases around the capital.
So far, the military has given the Iraqi government $132 million worth of equipment. At least 50,000 individual items, including vehicles and communications equipment, have gone directly to Iraqi security forces to help protect the country.
Additionally, the U.S. military says it sold 7 million pounds of unusable equipment as junk to Iraqi scrap vendors in August alone.
At his roadside stand in Baghdad, 27-year-old Haider Qassim peddles DVD players, toasters and even canned food that he says was plucked from the trash piles outside closed U.S. bases. Among his best sellers: brown suede lace-up boots — the kind that U.S. soldiers wear — that go for about $50.
"We take whatever the garbage vehicle contains," said Qassim, adding that his profits support his entire 13-member family. "Sometimes it contains good things including air conditioners, and used flak jackets; other times, it's just OK, like bath supplies. But I've never had bad luck."
And a few miles (kilometers) away from the sprawling Victory Base Camp where the U.S. military in Iraq was headquartered until recently, Salim Muglad has filled a lot with trailers that appear to have been used by contractors and soldiers.
Muglad, 38, said he bought the 150 trailers at an auction outside Victory Base for $180,000. He's hoping to make twice that much by selling them to foreign oil companies that need housing for their employees in Iraq.
"The Americans are leaving at the end of the year, and they're trying to sell these things," said Muglad, pulling out a thick wad of $100 bills from his pocket.
At least some of the trailers were originally owned by contractor Solution Managers International, based in Fairfield, N.J. SMI Mideast Operations Director Jai Ganesh said the trailers were sold to the highest bidder once the company was told it had to be out of Victory by the end of August.
"I wish we had made profit or at the least break even! Unfortunately we didn't," Ganesh said in an email interview. "In fact I think no one on the base did."
Two hundred miles south, Army planners squatted over a map covering the floor at Camp Adder this summer to plot out when — and how — American forces will leave.
All bases up north will be closed in mid-October, according to the schedule, with the exception of a joint U.S.-Iraqi air base in the town of Balad that will stay open until mid-November. After that, there'll be a crazy push to get equipment and troops through Camp Adder, outside Nasiriyah, until it too shuts down a few days before Christmas.
An official ceremony marking the end of U.S. forces in Iraq has already been set for Dec. 15, even though American officials in Baghdad are negotiating whether troops will stay.
Either way, "it's a transition," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. "The farther we move down the road, the fewer options we're going to have."