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The Scotsman August 7, 2002


Al Udeid Airbase, Qatar
Al Udeid Airbase,

Picture of the Week

NEW satellite photographs of a huge new air base in the Qatari desert show that US efforts to reduce reliance on Saudi Arabia for any possible strike on Iraq have come to fruition, writes Tim Ripley.

Frustrated by Saudi Arabia's refusal to allow jets based in the kingdom to be used for air strikes on Afghanistan, the US began work to expand Al Udeid air base 20 miles from the Qatari capital, Ad Dawhah, late last year. Crucially, the base houses a new hi-tech command post in Pentagon jargon, which replicates the existing air headquarters at Prince Sultan air base, outside the capital, Riyadh - in effect removing any Saudi veto on US action against Iraq. At first the US denied it was moving its hi-tech Middle East air force command post, but earlier this year General Tommy Franks, commander-in-chief of US central command, admitted that he was setting up an alternative HQ for times of crisis. It boasts high capacity satellite links to allow thousands of air strikes to be controlled daily and real-time downloading of surveillance imagery from drone spy planes. Without this command post any US strike on Iraq would be impossible.

Prince Sultan air base has been home to more than 4,000 US airmen at centre of US efforts to enforce the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, but in March huge truck convoys began moving equipment from it to the new Qatari base. Satellite imagery released by the US commercial company, spaceimaging.com, shows that construction work at Al Udeid is complete. The base boasts a 12,300ft runway, acres of new aircraft parking ramps, hardened shelters for almost 100 fighter jets, command bunkers and huge satellite dishes.

Two huge aircraft shelters would allow US fighter jets to continue to operate even if the base was under attack from chemical or biological weapons.

A few hundred yards from the air base are four giant warehouses containing hundreds of mothballed US army tanks and armoured vehicles, ready to be prepared for action by a brigade of troops flown in from bases outside the Middle East. Within hours they could be embarked on ships for the short voyage to Kuwait to see action during any invasion of Iraq.

By allowing this huge base to be constructed, the emir of Qatar has clearly thrown in his lot with the United States.

Copyright 2002 The Scotsman Publications Ltd.