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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Chicago Tribune April 30, 2003

Military to leave Saudi Arabia

U.S. moving amid strained relations

By Stephen J. Hedges

Marking the end of an era, the United States will soon withdraw about 7,000 U.S. military personnel from Saudi Arabia and terminate a significant military presence there that lasted more than a decade, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced Tuesday.

Appearing at a press conference in Riyadh with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, Rumsfeld said the Pentagon was ordering the redeployment, which involves mostly members of the U.S. Air Force, because there no longer is a threat from deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The changes are to take place this summer.

The Persian Gulf, Rumsfeld said, "is now a safer region because of the change in Iraq." He also said U.S. planes no longer are needed to enforce a "no-fly" zone over Iraq. American military aircraft patrolling the southern half of Iraq did so in part from Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. also is likely to continue to use air bases in Iraq, increasing its military "footprint" in the region overall.

The decision to draw down forces in Saudi Arabia, though largely symbolic given the many U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf, reflects a shift in the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which built military ties during the 1980s. Though the two countries were once close, dealings between them have become strained since the Sept. 11 attacks and the discovery of evidence linking Saudi citizens and charities to Al Qaeda, the terrorist network blamed for them.

Many Saudis resent the presence of U.S. forces in the nation that is home to Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, and some--including Osama bin Laden--had used this as a justification for terrorism.

The pullout from Saudi Arabia also occurs as Pentagon strategists consider broader redeployments and reductions in troop levels overseas. The Army alone has 328,900 troops in 120 countries.

U.S. Gen. James Jones, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said in Washington on Monday that a number of NATO's 499 military facilities in Europe will likely be closed. Some will be replaced by new, smaller bases in Eastern European countries that have recently joined the alliance.

Though a longtime U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia refused to allow U.S. planes to use its bases during the war with Iraq. The U.S. was allowed to direct air operations from its Combined Forces Air Command center at Prince Sultan Air Base in central Saudi Arabia.

The withdrawal, Rumsfeld said, would not diminish the U.S.-Saudi security relationship. About 400 U.S. military personnel are to remain to train Saudi troops.

Prince Sultan welcomed the U.S. decision but suggested that it was not a result of pressure from his government.

"Obviously, there is no need for them to remain," he said. "This does not mean that we requested them to remove their forces from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Tuesday's decision will help ease an increasingly uncomfortable situation for the U.S. and Saudi governments.

Since 1980, the two nations have had an agreement in which four American AWACS surveillance planes and three aerial tankers had operated from Riyadh, and successive U.S. administrations in the 1980s and 1990s sold Saudis arms, including AWACs.

Troops welcomed in '90

U.S. forces flooded into Saudi Arabia in fall 1990, after Hussein's troops invaded Kuwait. Saudi Arabia welcomed the troops, and its own forces fought to push Iraq out of Kuwait.

After the war, about 4,000 uniformed Americans--mostly Air Force members--stayed in Saudi Arabia as part of the no-fly patrol operations, and as a check against further Iraqi offensives. However, they became a rallying point for Muslim fundamentalists, who charged the U.S. was trying to increase its influence over the Saudi royal family and the nation's oil reserves.

"The presence of the U.S. forces gives a lot of fuel to the virulent, anti-American Islamic forces that certainly command an audience in Saudi, and in the broader Arab world," said Jamil Khoury, an Arab specialist and business consultant who teaches at the University of Chicago. "It's become a real sore point in our relationship with the royal family, because it has become too burdensome to them."

For the U.S., the presence in Saudi Arabia was also yielding diminishing returns, even before the host country refused to participate in the second war against Iraq. U.S. personnel were under constant threat of terrorist attack after the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment complex, which killed 19 service members.

U.S. forces an irritant

Increasingly, the U.S. presence had become a central irritant for those pressing to reform the royal family's strong-armed rule and the fundamentalists who want to replace that government with a religious regime.

"As a society, it is overdue for fundamental political change," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank. "And notwithstanding all the oil they're sitting on top of, we probably don't want to be there when that change occurs."

Leaving Saudi Arabia does not mean that U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region will decline. The Iraq war was directed largely from U.S. Central Command headquarters, which had been established in Qatar. U.S. forces also used expanded bases and runways in Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. A sizable U.S. force is expected to remain there while efforts to return order and establish a functioning government in Iraq are under way.

Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki has predicted that up to "several hundred thousand" U.S. troops may be needed to enforce the peace in postwar Iraq, though Rumsfeld's office has said that figure is high. More than 250,000 U.S. military personnel were in the region during the war, though many of those troops have begun to return home.

The U.S. is likely to keep using Iraqi air bases, analysts suggest, and those may be vital if the Bush administration intends to keep pressure on states that it has accused of supporting terrorism and that may now pose the next threat to U.S. interests in the region.

"If you're thinking about blowing up Syria or Iran, all those Iraqi bases are going to be far more useful than a base in Saudi Arabia would have been," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org. "I think the governments of Iran and Syria are going to be very nervous with a large American military presence on their borders."

GRAPHIC: PHOTOPHOTO (color): Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (front row, right) waits in his aircraft Tuesday before flying out of Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. He said most U.S. forces would leave the kingdom. Reuters photo by Luke Frazza.

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune Company