- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Pentagon is eyeing the possibility of using three sites in Saudi Arabia as key staging areas in the event of war in the Middle East, officials said Tuesday in another sign that the U.S. military expects tensions with Iran to remain high for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) officials said they have already conducted test runs at the Yanbu port, including the unloading and shipping of cargo from the facility. The military also is examining King Faisal Air Base in Tabuk and King Fahd Air Base in Taif.

The Wall Street Journal and Defense News, which have reporters traveling with military officials in the region this week, first reported the Pentagon plan. Officials described it as an ongoing effort that began a year ago, and they said that Saudi Arabia already has paid for some upgrades to the facilities.

“These are prudent military planning measures that allow for temporary or conditional access of facilities in the event of a contingency, and are not provocative in any way, nor are they an expansion of the U.S. footprint in the region, in general, or in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in particular,” Capt. Bill Urban, CENTCOM spokesman, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Officials said the exploration of Yanbu, Tabuk and Taif began after a September 2019 assault on Saudi Arabian oil fields, which temporarily destabilized global energy markets and led to a short-term spike in fuel prices. Washington and Riyadh have both blamed the assault on Iran, though Iranian officials have denied direct involvement.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels operating in Yemen claimed credit for the attack.

That missile attack was part of a chain of events that led the U.S. and Iran to the brink of all-out war. The high point came last January following an American airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded by firing rockets at a U.S. military base in Iraq, injuring more than 100 American troops.

The U.S. recently cut its troop presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan down to 2,500, but the Pentagon over the past two years has dispatched thousands of additional troops to bases in Qatar, Kuwait and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The U.S. now has at least 42,000 troops in the region, according to a recent analysis by Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank that advocates a more restrained U.S. foreign policy

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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