Opposition Saudi sources report that U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia are moving equipment to Qatar. The report is unconfirmed but intriguing. Washington has been planning such a move for more than a year while the Saudis are allegedly denying the United States permission to use bases in the country to attack Iraq. If the report is true, then a major rift has opened between Washington and Riyadh.
Opposition Saudi sources report that U.S. forces at Prince Sultan Air Base, south of Riyadh, are moving equipment to Qatar. The Washington, D.C.-based Saudi Institute cites sources alleging that they had contacted moving contractors who are negotiating with the U.S. government, while the institute also cited witnesses who claimed to see U.S. military trucks moving away from the desert air base toward the Qatari border.
Recent developments in the U.S.-Saudi relationship give the claim some credibility. The U.S. military has reportedly been planning such a move for more than a year. And after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney left Saudi Arabia March 17, where the status of the base was undoubtedly a topic, most press reports suggested that the kingdom denied Washington permission to launch possible military operations against Iraq from Saudi territory.
However, STRATFOR has been unable to confirm the report. A U.S. military spokesman at Central Command (CENTCOM) flatly denied the story. A Saudi Arabian Embassy spokesman was equivocal, saying that he was not aware of any change in the U.S.-Saudi relationship but that he had not been briefed on the outcome of last week's closed-door talks between Cheney and Crown Prince Abdullah. STRATFOR's own sources in the region were not aware of any such movement either.
But the report's assertion is not coming out of thin air. The New York Times recently revealed that the U.S. military has had a contingency plan for reducing its presence in Saudi Arabia for more than a year. The movement to gain greater basing flexibility -- and reduce Washington's dependence on Riyadh -- started with former CENTCOM commander Gen. Anthony Zinni, now the U.S. envoy to the Middle East.
Over a year ago, the U.S. Air Force drafted a preliminary plan to move its air-operations center and fighter aircraft from Prince Sultan Air Base to other Persian Gulf countries, leaving only unarmed refueling aircraft, reconnaissance planes and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes in Saudi Arabia.
The plan was put on hold after Sept. 11, and the Times reported that it has not been presented to the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Pentagon's civilian leadership, nor has it been discussed with the Saudis.
The leading replacement candidate for the Saudi base would be in Qatar. The Al-Udeid Air Base, 20 miles south of the capital, Doha, was built in the mid-1990s and is one of the premier air bases in the Persian Gulf. It has vast hangers and a 15,000-foot runway, the longest in the Gulf.
Qatar isn't the perfect option. The government has a close relationship with Iran, which Washington isn't thrilled about. But Qatar has so far been extremely supportive of U.S. military efforts since Sept. 11.
As of mid-March 2002, several thousand U.S. troops were stationed at Al-Udeid in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Many of these troops are supporting the large complement of U.S. aircraft there, which include F-16 fighters, JSTARS reconnaissance aircraft and KC-10 and KC-135 aerial tankers. Qatar is also the location for the largest amount of pre-positioned U.S. military supplies and equipment in the Persian Gulf.
The bottom line is that there is a plausible, yet unconfirmed story that fits both with the facts at hand as well as the context of U.S.-Saudi diplomacy during the past few months. Washington has spent the past three months warning about plans to replace the Iraqi leadership. As recently as last week, the Saudi government reportedly told Cheney it would not allow the United States to use an air base in the kingdom to attack Iraq. Assuming that the Saudis were serious, it makes sense to reposition U.S. forces to an area where they can be used against Baghdad.
If the story is correct, it marks a major split between Washington and Riyadh and a staggering blow to the special relationship that has existed between the two since World War II. It is also another indication of the U.S. commitment to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Finally, it would give some hint of a timeline for ousting Hussein: The move was allegedly ordered just days after Cheney's visit, suggesting a sense of urgency (or at least drama) among the U.S. leadership. But it will likely take a month or two before the Qatar base is fully operational.
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