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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Gannett News Service January 15, 2002

Levin 'uneasy' about Saudi Arabian base

By Carl Weiser

WASHINGTON -- The top Democrat on defense policy Tuesday suggested the United States pull its military forces out of Saudi Arabia, saying he had "an uneasy feeling we're in a place we're not particularly wanted."

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told defense reporters that he'd like to see the 4,500 American military members stationed at Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh transferred to another country in the Persian Gulf region.

Pentagon spokesman Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said there were no plans or even discussions about pulling U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia.

"We have a long-standing, close defense relationship with Saudi Arabia and anticipate that continuing," he said. "The U.S. would not be in Saudi Arabia if the Saudis didn't want us there. We are there by invitation of the Saudi government."

Saudi embassy spokesman Nail al-Jubeir declined comment.

Though technically a Saudi-owned base, Prince Sultan Air Base has been filled with American military since it was built during the Persian Gulf War. It is the base for patrol flights over Iraq's no-fly zone and has been used in the war on terrorism, although not for bombing missions.

The Saudi government balked at U.S. requests to use the base for the war in Afghanistan, saying it could not be used for offensive purposes, and it has been accused of being less than zealous in freezing alleged terrorist funds and arresting anyone connected with the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Saudi royal family also has financed madrassas, Islamic schools that teach a radical form of Islam.

Nineteen American airmen were killed in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks.

Saudis downplay any mention that about 7,000 U.S. active-duty troops are in their country.

"There's a real problem when a country that's presumably an ally of ours doesn't want us to be seen by her people," Levin said. "They act as if they're doing us a favor."

Levin also complained that U.S. military women are severely restricted whenever they venture off base. They are required to wear full-length Saudi garb, cannot drive cars and must be accompanied by a man. Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally, a fighter jet pilot, is suing the Defense Department over the restrictions.

"None of us are comfortable if some of personnel are uncomfortable in Saudi Arabia," Levin said.

Many Saudis, like Osama bin Laden and his followers, resent the presence of U.S. troops in the same country that is home to the most sacred place in Islam, Mecca. The royal family has to balance the threat from its own angry citizens with the threat of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"The problem the Saudis have is, they can't live with us and they can't live without us," said John Pike, executive director of Globalsecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., defense research group.

Pike said the United States could pull out of Saudi Arabia as long as it already had set up an equivalent base in the area. Such a move would strain political relations more than it would the U.S. military. It would cripple a long-time alliance between the oil-guzzling United States and oil-producing Saudi Arabia.

Levin said he doesn't plan to take any legislative action on the base, nor has he spoken about it with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He made his comments at a breakfast meeting with the Defense Writers Group, made up of Washington Pentagon reporters.

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