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ARLINGTON, Va. — It’s a mission about-face for forces stationed at the U.S.-run Tallil air base in southern Iraq, who now turn their attention away from combat to rebuilding the war-torn nation.

With major battles now virtually nonexistent in Iraq, the air base’s “drastically” changed mission is twofold.

It now serves as a key logistical center to support military forces with food, fuel and other supplies, and is also a lead base to provide humanitarian and medical aid for Iraqis, said Army Brig. Gen. Jack Stoltz, deputy commanding general of the 377th Theater Support Command, now operating from the air base.

Tallil, the first forward air base in Iraq from which coalition forces operated, participated in several combat search and rescue missions, “more than expected,” including the one launched by U.S. special operations troops on April 1 to rescue Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital in Nasiriyah, said Air Force Col. John Dobbins, Tallil commander.

The base also has a combat support hospital and medical personnel treat an array of patients, from injured U.S. and coalition forces to Iraqi soldiers and civilians, Stoltz said. Medical personnel also travel to towns and villages in the area, treating Iraqis there, or bringing those in dire need of more advanced medical treatment back to the hospital at Tallil, he said Thursday during a teleconference piped in to the Pentagon from Tallil.

The U.S. troop population tends to fluctuate almost daily, but between 5,000 and 7,000 soldiers, and about 1,000 Air Force personnel, temporarily call Tallil home — an air base with the most rudimentary of facilities.

By Army standards, the base is an “austere” environment, with no electricity beyond generators, no running water and bathroom needs taken care of in wooden barrels burned at the end of each day, Stolz said. There is a shower tent in which soldiers can bathe about once every three days, he said.

If Army calls that austere, then “it’s down right primitive for the Air Force,” Dobbins joked.

But life there is improving as the Army and Air Force Exchange Service on Sunday began providing “most requested merchandise” to the troops at Tallil — items such as cigarettes, snack items, chewing tobacco, baby wipes and Gatorade, according to an AAFES press release.

Craig Sewell, responsible for AAFES services in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, and Kuwait Area Manager Dennis Hatcher, loaded merchandise in to an old Toyota Landcruiser, with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on top, and began driving to troops in the area to meet customers’ needs.

The abandoned airfield needed minor repairs, but overall, was left in good condition. Its two runways and parallel taxiways meet mission needs, Dobbins said.

The Army’s 3rd Infantry Division was the first to establish coalition control of the facility, and while faced a few skirmishes from paramilitary enemy forces, overall, U.S. troops met little residence at the abandoned air field, situated about 15 to 20 miles southwest of An Nasiriyah — and about 200 miles south of Baghdad.

“The hearsay evidence is that the Iraqi commander ordered his troops to evacuate the area and go to An Nasiriyah,” Dobbins said.

One of the biggest combat advantages of using Tallil so early on in operation was having the airfield from which A-10 Thunderbolts could take off and have “more time over target” instead of having to fly from other operating bases “to get to the fight,” Dobbins said.

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