- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

The United States is pulling its combat forces out of Saudi Arabia in the first tangible national security benefit from winning the war to oust Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced the decision yesterday at Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Air Base, where American commanders directed the air war against Iraq and where U.S. troops will shortly begin the withdrawal.

With neighboring Iraq on a U.S.-led path to democracy, Saudi Arabia and the United States agreed that the new, less-threatening security environment allowed for the exit of about 5,000 personnel and 50 aircraft normally deployed in the kingdom.

Defense officials said the plan is that by the end of the summer, all aircraft and military personnel will be out of Prince Sultan.

The historic move promises to relieve intense pressure on the Saudi royal family from within. Many Saudi Islamists have denounced the large U.S. presence in a country based on Islamic law and wary of Western influence.

It cost American taxpayers about $30 billion over the last 12 years to contain Saddam. Shutting down two no-fly zones in Iraq and leaving Saudi Arabia will significantly reduce those expenses, U.S. officials say.

Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaeda terrorist group carried out the September 11 attacks as well as other deadly bombings of American targets, frequently has cited the U.S. presence in his homeland as a reason for his murderous campaign.

U.S. officials dismiss his rationale, but they do believe ordering combat forces out of the Islamic state will help relieve tensions in the region.

"The withdrawal is a move huge in symbolism, and it will significantly reduce tension in Saudi Arabia," Hussein Shabokshi, a prominent Jeddah businessman, told the London Telegraph.

Said Khaled Batarfi, editor of the daily newspaper al-Madinah, "The U.S. withdrawal completely pulls the rug from under the Islamists' feet."

After terrorists bombed the Khobar Towers Air Force barracks in the city of Dhahran in 1996, the United States moved troops virtually out of sight to the brand-new and self-contained Prince Sultan base in the middle of the Saudi desert.

"Obviously, there is no need for [U.S. forces] to remain," Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan told reporters yesterday in Riyadh, where he appeared with Mr. Rumsfeld. "This does not mean that we requested them to remove their forces from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but they saw that their mission was over, so they would leave."

Earlier in the day, Mr. Rumsfeld made the announcement before 1,000 cheering Air Force personnel inside a huge hangar at Prince Sultan Air Base, less than three weeks after Baghdad fell.

Mr. Rumsfeld is on a tour of Gulf nations to assess security needs in a region now devoid of its major threat, Saddam, but still facing uncertainty from Islamist-run Iran. Before the war, the Pentagon maintained a rotating force of about 20,000 to 30,000 troops in the Gulf. That force will grow smaller, but the Pentagon has not yet decided on an exact number.

The operations at Prince Sultan's computerized Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) are being shifted down the Gulf coast to al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where a new CAOC went online in February. It maintained air operations in Afghanistan during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and will now run such missions for the entire theater.

Since the 1991 Gulf war, the United States has won new friends that can fill the void now created by the exit from Saudi Arabia. In addition to Qatar's support, Kuwait lets the Pentagon base both ground and air forces, and Bahrain hosts the Navy's 5th Fleet. The United Arab Emirates and Oman both house U.S. aircraft.

The United States will maintain the Prince Sultan airfield in case allied forces are again needed to fight nearby, a U.S. military official said.

"We maintain a close defense relationship with Saudi Arabia whether or not we have forces there," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Monday in an interview with The Washington Times. "I don't think either of us want to give up the capability to come back if and when we are needed."

The withdrawal will put the Saudi-American military relationship on roughly the same level as it was in 1990, before Saddam's army invaded Kuwait and threatened to conquer Saudi Arabia, holder of the world's largest known oil reserves.

Shown U.S. satellite images of massing Iraqi forces in 1990, Saudi King Fahd agreed to a massive buildup of air and land forces on his territory, from where a U.S.-led coalition launched operations to liberate Kuwait.

The vast majority of those troops left Saudi Arabia in 1991. But over the next 12 years, the Air Force kept a rotating force of about 5,000 personnel and 50 aircraft to enforce a southern no-fly zone over Iraq and protect the country's oppressed Shi'ite population.

The Pentagon will likely maintain a training program of a few hundred personnel in Saudi Arabia, as it did before the 1990 Iraqi invasion. The Saudi military is largely trained and equipped by the United States. The two countries will also conduct joint military exercises and run officer-exchange programs.

Since the end of Operation Desert Storm, a vein of tension has run through Saudi-U.S. relations.

While the kingdom allowed U.S. aircraft to enforce the no-fly zone from its bases, it did not permit strike aircraft to leave its territory to bomb targets outside that zone. It did, however, let the allies use Prince Sultan to run an air war of more than 46,000 missions, or sorties, involving nearly 2,000 planes.

Some American national-security pundits accuse Riyadh of supporting bin Laden and his Islamist ideology. They say the Saudis also subsidize other terror groups and people with ties to bin Laden as a way of buying off opposition groups. Most of the September 11 hijackers and their financial backers were Saudis.

The Bush administration maintains that the Saudis support the U.S. war on terrorism and have cut off charitable donations that have made their way to terrorist groups.

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