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The Kansas City Star February 22, 2003

U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia a sensitive issue for Muslims

By Rick Montgomery

Osama bin Laden wanted more than anything to get the U.S. military out of the sacred sands of his native Saudi Arabia.

He may get his wish -- but only, ironically, if his "infidel" enemies now crowding into strongholds around the desert peninsula end up conquering Iraq.

Recent reports suggest that American and Saudi officials expect the United States to significantly reduce or even eliminate its 12-year troop presence in the cradle of Islam once the problem of Iraq is finally settled.

An eventual U.S. withdrawal could mollify some Saudis who have long objected to having non-Muslim forces in the land of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

"Having a smaller footprint is much more comfortable, both for us and for you," a Saudi official said.

Still, the broader Middle East most likely would hold far more American troops in the aftermath of war, including thousands that would be needed to maintain order in a reconstructed Iraq.

"Assuming the U.S. is successful in Iraq, you could reduce that military presence in Saudi Arabia" and shift forces toward Baghdad, said Rutgers University professor Roy Licklider, who studies global conflicts. "But I don't know if you really fix anything by occupying another Muslim nation."

In any event, disarming Hussein comes first, experts say. And that mission requires American and British troops in the Arabian peninsula in numbers unseen since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

U.S. forces are massing in Kuwait. American aircraft are using bases all along the southern rim of the Persian Gulf. Even Yemen has asked for American military assistance in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As many Muslims view it, U.S. troops deployed for the 1991 gulf war overstayed their initial welcome. Dick Cheney, then-U.S. defense secretary, told Saudi rulers the troops would leave soon after allied forces eliminated the Iraqi threat.

When bin Laden first called for holy war against "Jews and crusaders," the American troop presence near holy ground topped his list of grievances.

"The Arabian peninsula," the terrorist leader wrote in 1998, "has never been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations."

His message resonated the most in Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis.

Postwar planning

In congressional testimony earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted at America's postwar intentions in the Persian Gulf.

"We'll be able to change the presence levels of American troops throughout the region in the absence of a threatening regime like Saddam Hussein's," Powell told the House International Relations Committee.

Roughly 5,000 U.S. military personnel -- mostly Air Force -- have been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the end of the gulf war. Their official purpose is to deter Iraq from attacking the kingdom and to monitor the "no-fly zones" that are off-limits to Iraqi planes.

Islamic militants in the region made their wrath known in 1996 by bombing the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dhahran, a city in eastern Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen.

The attack prompted the Pentagon to move soldiers to Prince Sultan Air Base in the desert some 50 miles south of the capital, Riyadh.

Although the armed presence clearly riled religious extremists, the U.S. State Department a year ago dismissed news reports that the Saudi government also wanted U.S. forces to leave.

That probably will not happen anytime soon -- nor should it, said retired Air Force Gen. Charles G. Boyd, president and chief executive of the Washington-based Business Executives for National Security.

"I think there are some nice arguments for pulling out of Saudi Arabia," a move that would delight airmen stationed in 100-degree heat, living without their families but with conservative Saudi restrictions, Boyd said. "The youngsters don't like going there....

"But wherever we keep U.S. forces for a long period of time, there comes a positive stabilizing effect. Wars don't happen there anymore."

Despite bin Laden's repeated calls for a U.S. withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, Muslim experts dispute the degree to which the rest of Islam agrees.

"I don't think people pay much attention to Osama bin Laden anymore,"

said Osman Bakar of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, based at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Muslims, he said, are far less troubled by U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain than by the prospective use of force against Muslim Iraq or by "a perception that America has a global design for them."

That feeling is fueled by anger over American support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.

Louay Safi, a political scientist at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Va., agreed.

"Even in the most conservative Arab societies, large numbers of non-Muslims working there are welcomed," Safi said, "Nobody's talking about infidels."

An uneasy presence

Safi and others said Saudi residents have little contact with U.S. forces, which try to maintain a low profile at an isolated air base.

Even the million-plus Muslim pilgrims who traveled to Mecca this month for the hajj would have "had no chance to see a military presence" unless they had flown over carriers or other ships off the coasts, Safi said.

Saudi Arabia is roughly the size of the continental United States east of the Mississippi River. The distance between Mecca and the Prince Sultan Air Base rivals the distance between St. Louis and Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia.

"The presence, the Saudis can tolerate," professor Licklider said. "On balance, most Muslims would wish we weren't there....But it's the larger U.S. policy toward Iraq and Palestine that really bothers them.

"Are our troops there at risk? Sure, they're at risk."

The level of that risk is difficult to assess, as influential Muslim clerics in the Mideast send mixed messages about how followers should react to the foreign presence.

Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian who is host of a popular TV show on the al-Jazeera satellite network, recently told The Washington Post that any Muslim who dies trying to expel American forces from the region should be deemed a martyr.

On the other hand, Qaradawi said, he is not opposed to the U.S. presence, as long as it defends and doesn't attack.

"My position is against this war, which is unjustified," he said.

Other observers said they doubted that the United States would pull troops out of Saudi territory even after engaging with Iraq -- unless Saudi royalty demanded it.

Patrick Garrett, associate analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, said conventional thinking at the Pentagon seemed to be, "Why settle for a fixed number of bases in the Middle East when you can have more?"

For the potential war, the Saudis have agreed to allow the Prince Sultan base to be used as an Air Force communications center, for refueling and reportedly for some combat missions.

However, the Pentagon has moved the bulk of its military operations to other gulf states such as Qatar and Kuwait because of the political sensitivities of Saudi citizens.

If the presence of U.S. forces indeed desecrates Mecca and Medina, as bin Laden's followers have charged, the spoiling began decades ago.

As early as 1942, the Saudis allowed U.S. warplanes to land and refuel on their way to the Far East, writes Harvard University's Nadav Safran in Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security.

An American air base built a few years later in Dhahran was used to deploy a small force of F-100s during the Yemeni civil war in 1962. The U.S. eventually turned the airfield over to a grateful Saudi government.

And as irony would have it, that former U.S. base helped bring planeloads of Muslim pilgrims to the holy sites.

Knight Ridder Newspapers' Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.


Copyright 2003, The Kansas City Star