- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

AL-UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar If President Bush ordered air strikes on Iraq, this vast, remote and little-publicized base in the central Persian Gulf would be a critical hub for U.S. warplanes and their aerial pipeline of bombs and supplies.

The government of Qatar is spending millions of dollars to expand al-Udeid. Over the past months, the U.S. military quietly has moved munitions, equipment and communications gear to the base from Saudi Arabia, the control center for American air operations in the Gulf for more than a decade.

About 3,300 American troops are in Qatar, mostly at al-Udeid. The base is an isolated outpost amid a flat, seemingly endless stretch of scrubby desert about 20 miles from Doha, Qatar's capital.

Signs of an American military buildup are unmistakable:

•A tent city has sprouted, along with huge, air-conditioned warehouses and miles of security barriers that attest to the U.S. military's sharpened focus on protecting troops against terrorist attack.

•Freshly paved runways and aircraft parking ramps stretch deep into the desert. Al-Udeid's main, 15,000-foot runway is the longest in the region and can handle the largest Air Force transport planes.

•Newly built hangars for fighter aircraft are hardened to withstand aerial attack. Within view from the main runway are dozens of hardened bunkers, presumably for storage of munitions and supplies.

"It is likely the most capable base in the Gulf region," said William Arkin, a private military analyst.

In a sign of al-Udeid's importance to the Bush administration, Vice President Richard B. Cheney visited the base in March and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stopped to see the troops in June.

Al-Udeid is by no means the only important U.S. military base in the Gulf area. Nearly 10,000 U.S. Army soldiers are at Camp Doha in Kuwait and an additional 4,200 troops are in Bahrain, headquarters for the Navy's 5th Fleet. Several thousand are in Saudi Arabia and a few thousand in Oman.

There are two other important U.S. military posts in Qatar Camp As-Sayliyah where tanks and other armored vehicles, ammunition and tons of other Army equipment are stored, and Camp Snoopy, a logistics hub where about 900 U.S. soldiers work.

Days after the September 11 attacks, Qatar granted permission for the United States to send a group of warplanes, organized as the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, to al-Udeid. They flew attack missions over Afghanistan and were supported by KC-10 and KC-135 refueling aircraft also based at al-Udeid.

There has been speculation that al-Udeid is being built up as either an alternative to, or replacement for, the Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have made clear they do not favor an American invasion of Iraq, and it is likely that if the Bush administration went ahead anyway, the Saudis might forbid the use of the air-control center at Prince Sultan.

U.S. government policy is to achieve "regime change" in Iraq, and Mr. Bush has made clear that this could mean military action to topple President Saddam Hussein.

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said this year he had no plans to move the air-control center. But he added, "That does not mean that I don't have plans to replicate it."

Qatar is small roughly the size of Connecticut but its location on the western shores of the Gulf, bordering Saudi Arabia, make it well suited for air operations against Iraq.

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