Powell says Saudis want U.S. to stay

Saturday, January 19, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday the government of Saudi Arabia has never suggested that America should pull its military from a Saudi base that plays a key role in Afghanistan and is vital to deterring Iraq.

But the royal family has privately discussed the possibility of asking America to leave, said both Saudi dissidents and U.S. military analysts. The Saudis are unlikely to request a pullout soon for fear of alienating the United States or appearing to cave in to Osama bin Laden's demands, they said.

Obvious strains

Publicly, both countries said their military relationship will continue because of a mutual desire to keep the Persian Gulf stable, despite obvious strains after the Sept. 11 attacks. Fifteen of 19 hijackers were Saudis, as is bin Laden.

Powell said he talks to Saudi officials every other day and "there has been no discussion" of America leaving.

President Bush "believes that the current arrangements are working and working well," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The president believes that our presence in the region has a very helpful and stabilizing effect."

The Saudi Embassy, quoting its ambassador, Prince Bandar, said Saudi Arabia "is pleased with the level of cooperation in all fields."

U.S. forces have been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the 1990 buildup to the Gulf War. The 5,000 troops now there are primarily at remote Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh, the capital.

From a new command center there, U.S. officers coordinate air operations in the region -- including missions flown over Afghanistan since October and missions enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq.

A pullout would hurt the ability to protect Saudi Arabia or Kuwait from invasion, and complicate any U.S. effort against Iraq, considered a possible future target in the war on terrorism.

U.S. needs support

Saudi support also has played a key role in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, said Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the war.

Air Force Secretary James Roche, asked how big the loss would be, said: "It would be difficult, unless we could replicate" the command center somewhere else.

But many Saudis, including some in the royal family, are embarrassed that an outsider must defend their country, said Joseph McMillan, a former Pentagon official who oversaw Saudi relations.

"We think we're doing things for them," McMillan said. "They think they're doing things for us."

In addition, Saudi Arabia wants to improve its relations with Iran and thinks the U.S. presence hinders that. And it continues to disagree with the United States over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi dissident in London.

Anti-U.S. feeling also has grown because of the war in Afghanistan, said both al-Faqih and Ali al-Ahmed, a Washington-based dissident.

"Those who want to ask the Americans to leave .... (argue) that now the disadvantages of the presence of U.S. troops outweigh the advantages," al-Faqih said.

Some Americans, in turn, believe Saudi Arabia is proving a weak ally, that it is not doing enough to fight terrorism.

Earlier this week, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the United States should consider moving its military personnel to another base in the region "that is more hospitable."

"I just think the Saudis actually think somehow they are doing us a favor by having us be there helping to defend them," Levin said.

That apparently prompted an unnamed senior Saudi official to say his country's rulers may soon ask the United States to withdraw, in a report Friday in The Washington Post.

However, the Saudis would be loathe to raise the issue now lest they appear to give in to bin Laden, who has called for U.S. troops to leave Saudi Arabia, the site of Islam's holiest places, dissidents said.

And many in the royal family believe the U.S. presence still is needed, said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think thank.

"I'd also have to say there's nowhere else to go (militarily) in the Gulf," Cordesman said. "We have saturated Kuwait, we have saturated Qatar, you're not going to get what you need out of the UAE (United Arab Emirates), you have a strong presence in Bahrain, and Oman is a ... long way away from where you need to be."

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