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Saudis' call for exit of U.S. forces seen as prelude to crackdown

Monday, February 10, 2003

Saudi Arabia has launched preparations for an end to the U.S. military presence in the kingdom.

U.S. officials and Western diplomatic sources said Riyad has relayed the most authoritative message to the Bush administration that the kingdom has revised its defense strategy and will no longer require American troops.

The new Saudi agenda calls for continued military and security relations with the United States, the officials said. They said Riyad plans to use the exit of U.S. troops from the kingdom to justify a massive crackdown on Al Qaida and its supporters.

The Saudis are not expected to issue a formal request to Washington until the conclusion of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Middle East Newsline reported. Officials said Saudi Arabia has pledged to allow the U.S. Air Force to continue to use the Prince Sultan air base.

They said Saudi Arabia has also decided to maintain a ceiling on the number of U.S. military personnel in the kingdom amid Washington's preparations for a war against Iraq.

"We were expecting this message for a long time and it has come," an official said. "It's not official, and nothing will be announced in either the United States or Saudi Arabia until later this year."

Officials confirmed a report in Sunday's New York Times that Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz relayed to President George Bush a decision by Riyad for a revision of the kingdom's defense and security strategy. The crown prince said the new strategy no longer encompasses the maintenance of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Riyad has not relayed any request for the departure of U.S. troops from the kingdom. Ms. Rice described U.S.-Saudi relations as warm and friendly.

But other U.S. officials said the Saudis rejected a U.S. request to increase the number of personnel at the Prince Sultan base. The Defense Department sought to make the air base a key operations center in the expected war against Iraq.

Last year, a report issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged the Pentagon to expand the U.S. military presence at Prince Sultan. The report, quoted by the Washington Times on Friday, asserted that the Combined Air Operations Center at the Saudi base was not prepared to conduct a major war in the Gulf region.

"We must be prepared to use this facility for even more complex MTW [major theater war] level combat in the future," the report said. "We must transform the [Prince Sultan air base] CAOC into a true weapon system so when the much larger MTW crew force arrives, they can snap right onto an existing foundation to start killing targets from day one. This will take many immediate, simultaneous, dramatic, fully funded, and revolutionary actions."

The report warned that U.S. personnel at Prince Sultan were overstretched and could not maintain the current workload. It said operators work 60-day tours of up to 19 hours per day.

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