Saudis still balking on airspace rights

Friday, March 21, 2003

U.S. officials said the Defense Department is pressing Saudi Arabia to expand what they termed limited cooperation by Riyad. They said the Pentagon could decide to use Saudi Arabia as a base to launch bombing raids on Iraq despite the kingdom's objections.

One source of tension is Saudi Arabia's refusal to allow the United States or its war allies to fly through the kingdom's air space with troops and material for the Iraqi war. So far, officials said, the Saudis have resisted appeals by both Washington and Egypt to open the kingdom's air space, Middle East Newsline reported.

Officials said the Pentagon could soon order U.S. warplanes to violate Saudi air space in a test of wills with the kingdom. They said Riyad has threatened to respond militarily to any violation of its air space.

"The Saudis have been constantly limiting the U.S. military and the Pentagon believes it can ride roughshod over Saudi Arabia," an official said. "This test of wills is being played out during the war."

Officials said Saudi Arabia has become an important country in U.S. military planning amid the refusal by Turkey to allow the deployment of 62,000 American troops, who would form a northern front against Baghdad. The result has been that the Pentagon has been pressing the Saudi leadership to grant its air space and territory for both operations and a supply route for the war.

So far, officials said, Saudi Arabia has been extremely cautious. The kingdom has allowed several thousand U.S. troops along the Iraqi-Saudi border. But the U.S. forces are meant to protect the kingdom against any Iraqi armored attack and are not allowed to cross the Saudi border.

"There is hope that the Saudis will allow this U.S. force to expand and even enter Iraq at a later stage in the war," another official said.

The Washington-based Saudi Information Agency reported on Thursday that thousands of U.S. troops have been stationed in the northern Saudi town of Tabouk. The agency relayed reports from those in Saudi Arabia as saying the United States is broadcasting anti-Saddam propaganda from the kingdom via radio and television.

U.S. Central Command has deployed troops and aircraft around two airports in northern Saudi Arabia. They are Araar and Jouf. A Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman acknowledged that Araar is closed to civilian traffic, but denied that Jouf, 150 kilometers south, was closed to Saudi flights.

U.S. officials said the Saudis have also maintained restrictions on the use of the Prince Sultan Air Base. This includes maintaining a previous U.S. pledge that the advanced command and control center the most advanced in the Gulf region would not direct bombing attacks on Iraq. One official said the U.S. pledge has already been violated.

The kingdom has also refused a U.S. request to unload military supplies at the Saudi port at Dammam on the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon sent ships filled with U.S. military supplies from the eastern Mediterranean to Saudi Arabia after Turkey would not allow the vessels to unload and the supplies transported to northern Iraq.

"The military supplies were meant to go by land to Kuwait," the official said.

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