U.S. and Saudis Agree on Cooperation
Gulf Nation to Permit Expanded Use of Military Facilities in Event of War
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 26, 2003; Page A18
The United States and Saudi Arabia have reached new agreements that will allow expanded U.S. air operations from Saudi territory, including full use of Prince Sultan Air Base as an air operations center, in the event of war against Iraq, according to senior U.S. officials and diplomatic sources.
"We've had talks over the past three weeks that have been very productive, and both we and the Saudis are satisfied," an administration official said yesterday. "We've reached agreements that affect facilities inside Saudi Arabia and a broad array of military operations that could happen in the event of hostilities with Iraq."
In addition to the use of the air command and control center at Prince Sultan, 70 miles southeast of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the agreements will allow the United States to fly refueling aircraft, AWACS surveillance planes and JSTARS battlefield radar aircraft from Saudi airfields, the sources said. The United States also will be permitted to use Saudi airfields to base fighter jets that undertake interception missions against Iraqi aircraft and that enforce the "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq.
A source said there also is a tacit agreement that will allow the United States to conduct bombing missions from Saudi Arabia in the days after an initial wave of U.S. air attacks as long as no public announcement was made. Asked about the possibility of launching combat strike aircraft from Saudi bases, a senior Defense Department official declined comment. The official said the Saudis "have allowed us to base additional aircraft in the kingdom and the personnel" they require. But he declined to characterize the aircraft except to say, "These are defensive, not to use for offensive purposes."
The agreements clarified a lengthy period of uncertainty about the extent of Saudi cooperation with the United States in event of a war with Iraq. Coupled with the approval by the Turkish government of a plan to allow U.S. ground forces to launch operations into Iraq from Turkey, they provided Pentagon war planners with another important building block in the Persian Gulf region for a possible military campaign against the government in Baghdad.
Although the Saudis indicated last fall that they would allow the United States some use of Prince Sultan Air Base -- a multimillion-dollar facility opened in 2001 -- and permit U.S. combat aircraft to fly from Saudi soil in a war, they were vague about the extent of their commitment until the understanding reached with administration officials in recent days.
"It's been a tough decision for them, given the pressures that they're under," a senior U.S. defense official said. "There is a lot of emotion in both places about the political challenges in both countries about this cooperation. . . . We respect their situation and the risk they're running."
The defense official declined to comment on whether search-and-rescue missions for downed U.S. pilots could be launched from Saudi Arabia, but specified that no U.S. ground deployments are envisioned. That's a dramatic departure from the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when more than half a million U.S. troops poured into Saudi Arabia to help drive Iraq out of Kuwait.
Sources said the Saudis have also agreed to increase their daily oil production by 1.5 million barrels per day to, as one put it, "kick in as soon as there's a shortfall" on international markets. Current Iraqi production of 2 million barrels is expected to cease, at least temporarily, if hostilities begin.
Saudi officials declined to discuss the specifics of the agreement and emphasized that they disapproved of any U.S. decision to launch an attack on Iraq. But sources said the Saudis had weighed the potential benefits and liabilities of cooperating with the United States in the event of a war and decided that if Washington were determined to proceed, that was where their long-term best interests lay.
The overall direction of a military invasion of Iraq would be based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, where the Tampa-based U.S. Central Command has established a forward headquarters. Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the Central Command chief, arrived in Qatar yesterday. But in a highly computerized operation, the service commands for various parts of the assault would be dispersed, with naval operations headquartered in Bahrain, land forces in Kuwait and the Air Force command at Prince Sultan.
Anticipating a possible refusal by Saudi Arabia to allow the military full use of its Prince Sultan command post, the Pentagon last year began preparing a similar operations center in Qatar. With the new agreement, the air operations center would be housed at Prince Sultan, which provides state-of-the-art equipment for planning and conducting air attacks in the region.
"This is a new era," the senior defense official said. "First of all, the war is 24 hours a day, [and] communications are instantaneous. . . . Having different components in different places, this is doable. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, it wasn't."
Saudi Arabia played by far the biggest role in the Gulf region during the 1991 war against Iraq, housing the U.S. command center at Dhahran outside Riyadh and serving as a base not only for U.S. air operations but also for ground operations. U.S. construction of Prince Sultan as an air command and intelligence center began in 1994, and in 2001 it officially became the home base for more than 4,000 U.S. airmen and the operations center for Operation Southern Watch, the U.S.-British enforcement of the "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq.
The Saudis have balked at a high-profile participation in a second war against Iraq, particularly one without United Nations approval.
Saudi opposition to the administration's Iraq policy has served to increase criticism of Saudi Arabia in the United States that first arose after revelations that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were Saudi citizens. Through much of last year, the Saudis attempted to bring Arab leaders together to find an alternative to war with Iraq, including suggestions that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein be enticed into exile.
But as those efforts flagged and U.S. determination to oust Hussein became more apparent, the Saudis appeared more amenable to cooperation. Direct, high-level conversations between the two governments over the use of military facilities for war began in earnest last fall during a visit to Saudi Arabia by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and culminated with the recently reached agreements.
"What we had at first was a willingness to be open to a lot of things we were interested in," the senior defense official said, "and an overall attitude that . . . wanted to make clear that this defense relationship was still alive and well."
It has caused "a lot of political controversy in both countries," the official said, "but I think they made a strategic decision that they wanted the relationship with us to be solid and continue to be solid."