U.S. approves basing of Saudi jets near Israel

Thursday, December 18, 2003

The Bush administration has agreed to lift restrictions on the deployment of advanced U.S.-origin aircraft procured by the Saudi Royal Air Force.

U.S. officials said the changes would allow the Saudi air force to deploy its fleet of F-15 fighter-jets anywhere in the kingdom. They said this would include the deployment of the F-15 in the Saudi air force base of Tabuk, about 150 kilometers from Israel.

Congress was notified of the lifting of the U.S. restrictions in early 2003, the officials said. They said Israel was also told that Saudi F-15S aircraft could operate from Tabuk.

[On Wednesday, the State Department advised the 300 non-essential U.S. government staffers and their families in Saudi Arabia to depart at Washington's expense, Middle East Newsline reported. The departure recommendation, issued amid new information of an Al Qaida plot, was also extended to the 30,000 American non-government personnel in the kingdom.]

In 2001, the General Accounting Office said in a report entitled "Defense Trade: Information on U.S. Weapons Deliveries to the Middle East," that Washington received assurances from an unspecified country, said to be Saudi Arabia, that it would not base the F-15S near the Israeli border. The GAO did not name either Israel or Saudi Arabia.

"Prior to selling fighter aircraft to one country in the Middle East, the U.S. government received assurances from the foreign government, through formal discussions, that the aircraft would not be based near one of the country's borders," the report said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has sent a letter to Congress regarding the lifting of the U.S. restrictions on the F-15 in Saudi Arabia, officials said. The letter cited the Saudi need to defend its air space amid the deterioration of its aging F-5 and Tornado fleets.

Rumsfeld was also said to have asserted that Riyad demonstrated its loyalty as a peaceful U.S. ally in the Middle East. The secretary dismissed the prospect that the kingdom would use the F-15S against Israel.

Pentagon officials said Israel had been informed by Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith of the Saudi intention to deploy the F-15S several weeks before the air force transferred the fighter-jets from bases in the central part of the kingdom to Tabuk. They said Israel did not object.

Congressional sources disputed the Pentagon assertion. They said Rumsfeld had reported the changes in Saudi F-15S deployment to Congress as part of U.S. preparations for the war in Iraq. The result, the sources said, was that members of the Congress who attended the briefing understood that the F-15S deployment at Tabuk would be temporary.

"The committee understood that the Saudis would keep the F-15S in Tabuk until the United States withdrew its forces from Saudi Arabia," a congressional source said. "Then, the Saudis would return the F-15s to their original bases."

In September, the United States withdrew its aircraft fleet and virtually all American soldiers from Saudi Arabia. The exception was about 200 U.S. military trainers meant to oversee the enhancement of Saudi military and security forces.

But Pentagon officials said Rumsfeld made it clear in an appearance to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year that the lifting of restrictions on the Saudi F-15s would be permanent. They said Rumsfeld assured Congress that Israel was not endangered by the lifting of the restrictions and that the kingdom required a U.S. military presence to maintain the Saudi F-15 fleet.

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