- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

The United States and Saudi Arabia are seeking to expand military cooperation in the coming months, planning a major conference at the Pentagon early next year to discuss further U.S. training of the Saudi military.

“This is all something the Saudis are very encouraging about,” a senior State Department official told reporters yesterday. “We are going to have a detailed planning conference in the Pentagon with the Saudis in a few months. I think it will be a very important meeting as we discuss the future of the relationship.”

This official said the Saudis are for the first time allowing the U.S. military to train its army. Until now, the training largely had been limited to the air force and the national guard.

“We are now looking at expanding that relationship to include for the first time the Saudi army, as well as a deeper relationship extending down to the brigade level so that younger, more junior officers are trained by our more junior officers,” the official said.

“I think in the long term that is to everyone’s advantage because you can develop relationships with these guys as they progress up the ranks.”

Part of the new training will take place on Saudi soil.

“Our U.S. military training mission in Saudi Arabia works day to day with the Saudis in Saudi Arabia,” the official said. “It is not merely a matter of shipping officers back for training. We have people in the kingdom who engage in training and [war] gaming.”

The United States is expanding the training at a time when the U.S. troop presence in the kingdom has decreased sharply.

Earlier this year, the United States began withdrawing its forces from the Prince Sultan Air Base, the main air base used by U.S. and British planes to patrol the no-fly zone in southern Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power.

“We have closed down all operations at Prince Sultan Air Base, so those Air Force personnel largely are gone,” the official said, adding that the decision to remove U.S. forces from the base was greeted “amicably” by the Saudi government.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair magazine in the spring that one of the benefits of Operation Iraqi Freedom was that it would allow the United States to withdraw forces from the air base.

The presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia consistently has been one of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden’s top grievances with the Saudi government.

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