DOHA, Qatar The United States yesterday moved a contingent of soldiers trained in evacuating civilians closer to Qatar, the site of the World Trade Organization meeting, one day after a gunman fired shots at a U.S. military base inside the Persian Gulf country.
The move was taken as an extra precaution during the five-day meeting of the WTO, which begins today. The country remained locked in extraordinarily tight security measures in advance of the largest international meeting the region has ever known.
A Qatari policeman on Wednesday killed the lone gunman, identified by Qatari authorities as Abdullah Mubarak al-Hajria, 38, after he pulled up in his car in the late morning and began firing an AK-47 automatic rifle at the U.S. base.
“A [Qatari police] guard fired back, killing the attacker on the spot,” a spokesman for Qatar’s Interior Ministry said.
The Udeid air base, used to stockpile munitions and material, is 20 miles southwest of the capital of Doha.
The shooter had a history of mental instability and violence, with two stints at a psychiatric hospital since 1981, Qatari officials said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the United States knew of no link between the gunman and terrorist attacks in the United States.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, redeployed the USS Peleliu closer to Qatar from combat duty in the Persian Gulf. The 2,000 U.S. Marines on the ship are trained in handling noncombatants.
“They’re being pulled off station to execute a different mission that is sensitive right now not militarily so, but more politically so,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Jones said in Washington.
U.S. security officials said last week they have an evacuation plan in place should any terrorist attack disrupt the WTO meeting, or threaten U.S. citizens.
Qatar is 150 miles across the Persian Gulf from Iran, and several hours by air from Afghanistan, where the U.S. military is waging a bombing campaign to topple the Taliban regime.
Partly in response to U.S. concerns, Qatari police have imposed strict security measures on the thinly populated but sprawling capital of Doha.
Last month, Qatar began the crackdown by restricting visas to the 2,000 WTO-accredited government officials, journalists and nongovernmental activists attending the meeting.
Now, strict security has given Doha an intense, almost militarized feeling.
Soldiers in camouflage, helmets and flak jackets stand on most corners and traffic circles, checking identification and screening vehicles. Inside key buildings, Qatari security men stand guard, clad in traditional Arab garb of white robes known as dishdashas and headdresses.
The pyramid-shaped Sheraton Hotel and Resort, where trade ministers of the WTO’s 142 members are staying, was the subject of particularly intense searches, with sentries in hallways. Outside, concrete-and-barbed-wire barriers stand between the hotel and would-be car bombers.
In addition to the usual metal detectors and physical searches at every entrance, uniformed officers periodically swept through the hotel with bomb-sniffing dogs, and sealed openings where terrorists might be able to stash explosives.
At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where the U.S. delegation is staying, U.S. security men took protection a step further, with round-the-clock patrols of the hotel’s corridors.
At a news conferences with senior U.S. officials, U.S. government bodyguards searched journalists for weapons, and scanned their bags in search of other threats.
The tight security has severely impaired traffic in the “exclusion zone” around the most important buildings for the WTO meeting.
Attendees moved between hotels and the conference center by bus, with taxis barred from the immediate area and travel on foot limited by the lack of sidewalks and blazing desert heat.