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U.S., Egypt put off joint military drills

Junta busy catching escapees in Sinai

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Egypt and the United States are postponing a major military exercise this year as Egypt's military deploys troops to secure the Sinai Peninsula.

"The Egyptian government and United States decided to postpone it for 2011 based on mutual agreement in light of ongoing transition events," a State Department official said Wednesday.

"The decision to postpone came through routine bilateral conversations," the official added. "The Egyptian government has agreed to begin the formal planning for Bright Star 2013 in June of 2012."

A military junta has been running Egypt's domestic affairs since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power on Feb. 11 following nearly a month of popular unrest.

In charge of that junta is the country's highest-ranking officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Mr. Mubarak ruled Egypt since 1981. He is on trial for crimes against his country.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for November. Presidential elections are set to take place next year, although no date has been set.

Scores of radical jihadists escaped from Egyptian prisons along with other common criminals during the unrest in January and February.

The United States has worked quietly with the military in Egypt to try to rearrest some of the most dangerous escaped prisoners.

Some of the escaped prisoners have set up a base in the Sinai, according to one U.S. intelligence official.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow and Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the decision to postpone the military exercise was not a reflection of weakening U.S.-Egyptian ties.

"The Egyptians don't have the capacity to stage Bright Star given everything that is going on," he said.

Mr. Cook said the decision is "not a reflection of desire, but capacity."

Mr. Cook wrote on the Council on Foreign Relations website Wednesday that the Egyptian military, as part of what it calls Operation Eagle, had "deployed approximately 2,500 troops and somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 armored vehicles, including tanks, to al Arish, Sheikh Zuwayd, and Rafah deep into the Sinai."

The Sinai Peninsula is the territory Israel won from Egypt in the 1967 War and then gave back in 1979 under the Camp David Accord.

The military deployments were coordinated, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, with the Israeli government.

The Bright Star exercise is the largest of its kind for the Middle East and in the past included army, air force and naval maneuvers with U.S. and Egyptian forces.

The exercises are scheduled once every two years and have been taking place since 1980.

The joint exercises are part of the nearly $2 billion in annual military aid the United States has provided Cairo since the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1979.

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