- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia Thousands of U.S. troops are arriving in Saudi Arabia in preparation for an invasion of Iraq, independent sources say.

The Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, a London-based group opposed to the Saudi government, said that between 2,000 and 5,000 U.S. troops have landed in the northern garrison town of Tabuk in the past week, as have several Galaxy transport aircraft carrying heavy equipment.

Other credible sources said U.S. forces had taken control of Arar airport, less than 10 miles from the Saudi-Iraq border, and that it had been closed to civilian air traffic. The Saudi Information Agency, a Washington-based organization, said several equipment-laden Galaxy aircraft had arrived at Arar.

From Arar, the Americans could pour into Iraq's western desert or proceed directly by road toward Baghdad, forcing the Iraqis to face an attack from the west as well as the expected southern assault from Kuwait and a second front in the north.

The Saudi government, which is facing stiff domestic opposition to a war against Iraq, has not commented on the developments. The United States has said only that it is holding "productive" talks on using Saudi territory in the event of war.

The London Daily Telegraph reported last week that the United States and Saudi Arabia had secretly agreed that American air operations against Iraq could be launched from Saudi soil, in return for a promise that all U.S. forces would be withdrawn from the country after the war.

About 5,000 U.S. troops already are stationed in Saudi Arabia, mostly at the Prince Sultan air base in Al-Kharj, 50 miles south of Riyadh, to enforce the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

In Jidda last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal denied that Riyadh would allow American forces to initiate or direct attacks against Iraq from its soil.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf war, 500,000 U.S. troops were based in Saudi Arabia to liberate Kuwait and invade Iraq.

The official Saudi line remains that, without a second U.N. resolution, Saudi Arabia will not support another war.

But diplomats said that despite the kingdom's grave misgivings, it has decided that if the United States is determined to take military action Saudi Arabia will stand by its ally in the name of friendship and self-interest.

They added that the Saudi government believes a war will be shorter and more successful if the Americans can operate from Saudi facilities.

Saudi public opinion, inflamed by Israel's suppression of a Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000, is firmly against a U.S.-led war on Iraq.

The ruling family hopes that, as with the Afghanistan bombing campaign, any Iraq war will be over before the anger among the Saudi populace reaches boiling point.

But in an open show of support for America, Saudi Arabia has stockpiled 15 million barrels of oil and given a commitment to help meet Jordan's energy needs for free if necessary in the event of war. Jordan depends on Iraq for oil.

Oil prices are at their highest for years, with traders fearing that a war in Iraq may disrupt exports from other Middle East producers, which account for 40 per cent of world production.

Saudi Arabia has more than a third of the world's known oil reserves and already has increased production to 9 million barrels a day to ease concerns about a shortfall. It is prepared to go to its full capacity of 10.5 million barrels a day, Arab officials said.

One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to provide Jordan with 120,000 barrels of oil a day indefinitely, after pressure from the Bush administration to help Amman.

The official said Saudi Arabia would provide 50,000 barrels daily, Kuwait would give 50,000 and the United Arab Emirates would offer 20,000. He placed the net value at $1.3 billion and said delivery was expected to start soon.

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