Pentagon sees no future for U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia

Friday, February 28, 2003

The Defense Department has prepared plans for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and major military facilities from Saudi Arabia.

Officials said the pullout could begin later this year in the aftermath of a successful military campaign to topple the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. They said the withdrawal would be launched within weeks after the situation in Iraq stabilizes.

"We won't need troops in Saudi Arabia when there's no longer an Iraqi threat," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. "The Saudi problem will be transformed."

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Wolfowitz, in an interview on National Public Radio on Wednesday, envisoned a secular and modern Iraq in the aftermath of the Saddam regime. He contrasted the Iraqi people, most of whom are Shi'ites, with the Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia and predicted that Iraqis will not launch a backlash against the United States.

"The Iraqis are among the most educated people in the Arab world," Wolfowitz said. "They are by and large quite secular. They are overwhelmingly Shia which is different from the Wahabis [the ruling class in Saudi Arabia] of the peninsula, and they don't bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory."

Over the weekend, a congressional delegation discussed the future of U.S. troops in the kingdom with leading Saudi officials. The delegation, led by House Defense Appropriations Committee chairman Jerry Lewis, met Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khaled Bin Sultan and other Saudi officials.

U.S. officials said the Pentagon began drafting plans for the withdrawal of U.S. troops weeks after the Al Qaida suicide attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. They said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld envisioned that the level of unrest in the kingdom would soon become intolerable for a significant military presence.

Over the last year, officials said, U.S. Central Command has reduced the number of troops in Saudi Arabia from about 5,000 to as few as 3,000. The force level has slightly increased over the last few months as part of the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf for the war against Iraq.

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