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Bloomberg News January 15, 2002

U.S. Senator Suggests Leaving Saudi Base, Citing Unfriendliness

by Paul Basken and Tony Capaccio

Washington, Jan. 15 (Bloomberg) -- The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee suggested the U.S. withdraw from its prime military base in Saudi Arabia, citing a series of actions that have made Americans feel unwelcome in the country.

Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat of Michigan, cited Saudi Arabia's financing of anti-Western fundamentalist Muslims and its restrictions on female U.S. service personnel as reasons for leaving the Prince Sultan Air Base near the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

``I'm left with an uneasy feeling that we're at a place where we are not particularly wanted,'' Levin said of the base, which houses some 4,500 U.S. service members and is the largest of about a half-dozen U.S. installations in Saudi Arabia.

Levin's suggestion comes four months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, blamed by the U.S. on Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who cited the U.S. military presence in his home country as one of his grievances. The U.S. has maintained bases in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries since the Gulf War a decade ago.

Prince Sultan houses what the Air Force has touted as its most sophisticated ``combined operations center'' for conducting air operations in the region. Much of the Afghanistan air campaign, including the daily compilation of the primary attack plan, takes place at the base.

Saudi Cooperation

The Bush administration has identified at least 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attack as Saudi nationals. Although the administration has repeatedly praised Saudi cooperation with the investigation, some U.S. lawmakers have questioned that assessment.

The administration's reluctance to pressure the Saudis reflects the fragility of a relationship in which the Saudi monarchy is a leading producer of oil and the U.S. is its military protector, lawmakers and analysts said.

Levin, addressing a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, cited the case of Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally, the U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who is suing the government over its requirement that she comply with Saudi rules requiring women to be dressed in a head-to-toe gown when traveling off the base.

U.S. forces moved to the 80-square-mile Prince Sultan base, about 50 miles south of Riyadh, following attacks on less- protected U.S. facilities in 1995 and 1996.

``There's a real problem when we're told that a country that's presumably an ally of ours doesn't want us to be seen by its people, so we are moved out from a more urban environment to a desert environment, and that some of our personnel got to be restricted in ways that which were significantly unacceptable to us,'' Levin said.

`Soured' Opinion

Levin's remarks demonstrate that U.S. public opinion of the Saudis has ``soured considerably'' since Sept. 11, said Tom Keaney, a retired Air Force colonel and executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

The Bush administration still describes the Saudis as cooperative in fighting terrorism, though it might pursue Levin's suggestion, Keaney said.

``They see they have other options, and this is a way of pressuring the Saudis,'' he said.

Other countries that might welcome an expanded U.S. presence include Qatar, which already is host to a large U.S. base, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based defense analysis group.

``There's certainly nothing irreplaceable about Prince Sultan,'' Pike said.

And the Saudis might welcome the move, since they recognize the political costs of a high-profile U.S. presence, Keaney said.

Copyright 2002 Bloomberg News