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Detroit Free Press January 16, 2002

Levin says U.S. should assess troop pullout

BY CRAIG LINDER

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the United States should consider withdrawing its forces from Saudi Arabia because the country is not sufficiently grateful for U.S. protection.

"I just think the Saudis think somehow that they're doing us a favor," the Michigan Democrat said Tuesday. "I don't think it's a particularly hospitable environment."

Levin didn't suggest where the U.S. troops should go.

The U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia includes remote Prince Sultan Air Base, used for regular patrols to enforce flight-interdiction zones in Iraq, and a smaller facility outside Riyadh. Before Sept. 11, 4,600 U.S. personnel were in Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials have not provided an updated figure since the attacks.

At the same time, Levin cautioned that the United States should maintain its presence in Saudi Arabia if it means that Osama bin Laden could claim victory for his Al Qaeda network.

Bin Laden, whom the United States accuses of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks, has said he wants his terror campaign to force the United States to withdraw U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, home to several of Islam's holiest sites.

"There is that risk -- that it could be somehow perceived as giving in to him," Levin said. "If that's the way it's perceived, I wouldn't close it."

Levin also said the treatment of female troops at the base and its surrounding areas makes servicewomen uncomfortable.

Levin said the Saudi government has isolated U.S. military personnel and made them feel unwelcome. Also, he said, it's unfair that female members of the U.S. military be required to wear head-to-foot black robes, ride in the back seats of vehicles and be accompanied by men when off base.

Critics say the Saudi government has done too little to crack down on terrorists and extremists within its borders. Fifteen of the 19 operatives who participated in the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings were Saudi nationals.

Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, declined to discuss Levin's statements. The Saudi government has bristled in recent weeks, though, at suggestions it has not fully supported efforts to snare terrorists.

As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Levin has a hefty bully pulpit to press his views.

"We've been there at the request of the Saudi government, and I think we've maintained a good relationship there for the past 10 years," said Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Tampa, which oversees American bases and personnel in the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia.

Any effort to withdraw troops from the country would encounter two issues: the military value of Prince Sultan Air Base and its value as a symbol of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense watchdog group based in Alexandria, Va.


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