U.S. moves air operations out of Saudi Arabia as 1st step in exit

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

ABU DHABI The United States has transferred air operations out of Saudi Arabia as part of a new defense relationship with the Arab kingdom.

U.S. officials said the transfer of operations from the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia is the first step toward the virtual elimination of the American military presence in that country. They said nearly all U.S. soldiers will leave the kingdom within the next three months.

"By a mutual agreement now, the U.S. forces present here will leave," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a news conference at the Saudi military base on Tuesday. "We do intend to maintain a continuing healthy relationship with the Saudis. We look forward to exercises and training, working with them on their military."

On Monday, the U.S. Air Force terminated operations of its Combined Air Operations Center in Prince Sultan, Middle East Newsline reported. Officials said the operations at the center were transferred to a smaller $1 billion facility in the Al Udeid air force base in Qatar.

"The move was by mutual agreement with the Saudis," U.S. Rear Adm. David Nichols, deputy commander of the air operation center at Prince Sultan said on Tuesday. "We already have switched. "As of yesterday the ATO [Air Tasking Order] is being planned and executed out of Al Udeid."

Over the last six weeks, the Prince Sultan facility was responsible for air sorties and targets in the war against Iraq while Al Udeid handled mission planning for U.S. operations in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. Prince Sultan contains 4,500 U.S. Air Force personnel while Al Udeid has about 1,500 soldiers.

Officials said all U.S. aircraft will be flown out of the kingdom by August. About 100 aircraft remain at Prince Sultan, half the force level of that during the height of Iraq war. They included F-16Cs, F-15Cs and airborne warning and control system aircraft.

A skeleton crew could remain in Prince Sultan to maintain a dormant infrastructure for command and control systems, officials said. They said this would allow the rapid establishment of an air command and control center in case of a military emergency in the Gulf.

"Nothing's [in Prince Sultan] going to be torn down," U.S. Air Force spokesman Gen. Ron Rand said. "It will remain wired, but most of the computers and what not will be taken out. There will still be a capability if we and the Saudis decide we need to come back in."

On Tuesday, the first day after the termination of operations at Prince Sultan, the Al Udeid facility commanded about 700 air missions in Iraq. About 400 were airlift missions, 100 were standby close-air-support missions and the remainder were tanker, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Officials said the U.S. military presence at Al Udeid will be reduced to about 400 by the end of the year.

Officials said the U.S. relationship with Riyad will focus on modernizing the Saudi military as well as cooperation in Persian Gulf security. They envisioned joint air surveillance operations with the Saudi air force, which could require the presence of several hundred U.S. military and defense personnel in the kingdom.

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz said the United States would continue to help train and maintain the kingdom's military. Prince Sultan, who stressed that Riyad did not ask U.S. forces to leave the kingdom, raised the prospect of new Saudi weapons purchases from the United States.

"We agree that since the mission of these forces has come to an end, there is no need at all for their presence now," Sultan said in a joint news conference with Rumsfeld. "But this does not mean that there is no friendship between the two countries."

The United States has already withdrawn most of the nearly 10,000 troops based in northern Saudi Arabia during the first month of the war in Iraq. The troops as well as fighter-jets were deployed to defend the Saudi border from any Iraqi attack.

In at least one case, officials said, the United States launched offensive air operations against Baghdad from Saudi air space. They said Riyad's cooperation during the war was more extensive than that of Turkey, a NATO ally who had refused to allow U.S. troops to move through its territory to establish a northern front in Iraq.

Congressional sources and analysts dismissed claims of significant Saudi cooperation. They said Riyad eased its declared ban on helping the United States at some points during the war, but quickly imposed restrictions when any trace of cooperation with Washington became public.

"Saudi cooperation was minimal," Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said.

Simon Henderson, a leading analyst on Saudi Arabia, agreed. Henderson said Riyad's cooperation with the United States focused on maintaining higher oil output in an effort to prevent a global energy crisis during the war in Iraq.

"The Saudis were not as helpful as they could have been," Henderson told a seminar sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Analysts said the United States expects all GCC states to insist on a significant reduction of its military presence. They said a major problem could take place in Kuwait, where U.S. troops came under repeated attack from Islamic insurgents in late 2002.

"The GCC states will remain concerned about the U.S. military presence in their territory, and they will expect American forces to leave the region soon," Henderson said. "It would be wise to sharply reduce the presence of U.S. forces before the GCC states publicly suggest a reduction or full withdrawal."

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