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U.S. Lays Groundwork in Eastern Europe
USA Today | July 18, 2005 - CONSTANTA, Romania - The U.S. Army is conducting joint military exercises this month in Bulgaria and Romania as a key test of Pentagon plans to develop Eastern European bases as staging areas for fighting in the Middle East.
Beginning Tuesday, 1,500 U.S. troops, some of them bound for Iraq, will join 400 Romanian soldiers in urban warfare training. The port and military air base at Constanta on the Black Sea also are part of the exercise, just as they are expected to play a role in future U.S. deployments.
In neighboring Bulgaria to the south, 700 U.S. and Bulgarian troops are conducting armored warfare training.
Both nations, once part of the Soviet Union's bloc of Cold War military allies and now recent additions to the NATO alliance, are negotiating with the Pentagon over permanent U.S. basing rights, said Romania's president and Bulgaria's ambassador to the United States.
Marine Gen. James Jones, the U.S. military commander in Europe, called the joint exercises and potential bases part of an "eastward shift in the center of gravity" for U.S. military policy. They're part of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's plan to shift troops closer to potential trouble spots in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.
"The exercise allows us to hone our skills to build expeditionary base camps," said Army Maj. Jon Chytka, who is running the exercises in Romania. "We're not authorized to build permanent facilities here."
That will probably come later once the Pentagon finishes its negotiations with Romania and Bulgaria.
Bulgaria and Romania have 450 and 860 troops, respectively, in Iraq. U.S. troops stopped at Constanta's air base and port before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Though the Pentagon plans to keep thousands of troops in Germany, it will move roughly a third of the 75,000 troops there to bases in the USA.
It plans to establish smaller bases in Eastern Europe, where rotating groups of 3,000 U.S. troops would stop en route to more distant deployments.
U.S. troops based in Germany live there permanently with their families. Those deployed to Bulgaria and Romania would be there temporarily, and their families would remain in the USA.
Along with the facilities in Constanta, the United States is negotiating to use the military training range around Babadag, according to Romanian President Traian Basescu.
In neighboring Bulgaria, the Pentagon is sizing up a training area near the city of Sliven; Bezmer Air Base; and a naval base at the Black Sea port of Burgas, said Bulgarian Ambassador to the United States Elena Poptodorova. All are being used this month in the U.S.-Bulgarian joint military exercise.
"The discussion on this American presence is not about massive, Cold War-style bases but about a smaller-size presence, which should meet the goals of flexibility and rapid reaction against the current threats ... such as international terrorism," Basescu said in an e-mailed response to questions from USA TODAY.
The military exercises are a test of that flexibility, said Peter Majeranowski, an official of Windmill International, the contractor handling most of the logistic work on the Romanian project.
In six weeks, the Army, Windmill and Romanian and Turkish contractors have turned an empty field near the town of Babadag into a functioning base for 2,000 with water and sewer lines, electricity, collapsible living quarters and mess halls, communication gear and mock urban areas for training.
Pentagon planners like the locations of Bulgaria and Romania, and they also appreciate the nations' support of U.S. military operations, Jones told the House Armed Services Committee.
Germany, a longtime U.S. ally, opposed the war in Iraq and didn't send troops to fight there. Saudi Arabia, which hosted U.S. troops during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, wouldn't allow U.S. forces there for the Iraq war. Turkey, which borders Iraq, wouldn't agree to let the United States open a northern front in the invasion of Iraq.
Germany and Turkey are longtime members of NATO.
Those nations' opposition to U.S. policy is one reason Rumsfeld wants to move troops elsewhere, Jones said. The enthusiasm of Romania and Bulgaria toward their post-Cold War alliance with the United States indicates they would be more willing hosts.
"That doesn't mean we don't have different opinions. ... We do," Poptodorova, the Bulgarian ambassador to Washington, said in a telephone interview. "But the important thing is that the strategic choices have been made."
Basescu said the exercises will help improve Romania's military by giving it the chance to work more closely with U.S. troops.
The establishment of U.S. bases also would show the world the nations are a safe place for business, said Timothy Kane of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. [enditem]
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