Saudi Arabia Said to Assure U.S. on Use of Bases
By ERIC SCHMITT
NYTimes - 29 Dec: WASHINGTON, Dec. 28 — Saudi Arabia has told American military officials that the kingdom would make its airspace, air bases and an important operations center available to the United States in the event of war with Iraq, senior military officials say.
Saudi Arabia was the main staging area for American forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, but conflicting public statements by top Saudi officials over the past several months have cast doubt on Saudi Arabia's support for military operations against Iraq this time around.
American commanders now say they have been given private assurances in recent weeks that they will be allowed to run an air war against Iraq from a sophisticated command center at Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital. It is the same command post that ran the air campaign in Afghanistan.
Because of its nearness to Iraq and large, modern facilities like the Prince Sultan base, Saudi Arabia offers crucial advantages as a staging area for military operations. But because of uncertainty about Saudi cooperation, the Pentagon proceeded with plans to build an alternate air command post in Qatar, where the overall American command for Iraqi operations will be headquartered.
American commanders now say allied refueling, reconnaissance, surveillance and cargo planes will be allowed to fly from Saudi bases, using Saudi airspace on the way to missions in or near Iraq. And these officials are expressing confidence that the Saudis will ultimately allow attack missions, which are more politically sensitive, to be flown from their soil.
In a significant sign of the new cooperation, Saudi officials over the past two months have quietly permitted American warplanes based in the kingdom to bomb targets in southern Iraq in response to Iraqi violations of the no-flight zone there. Previously, those missions were flown out of Kuwait.
"I firmly believe the Saudis will give us all the cooperation we need, and every indication I have is we're getting pretty much what we've asked for," Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview.
Officials in Riyadh and Washington continue to pursue delicate talks on the precise details of any Saudi support. But American officials say that all the Pentagon's requests are now on the table, even the use of Saudi ports and bases for small numbers of American and coalition ground troops.
"It's all an open question," said Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee who traveled to Saudi Arabia this month. Mr. Hagel said the broadest Saudi cooperation hinged on another United Nations Security Council resolution supporting the use of force to disarm Iraq.
"If we stay close to the U.N. and give countries like Saudi Arabia the political cover they need, yes," Mr. Hagel said in an interview. "If the U.S. veers off course and moves toward a unilateral position with the Brits, then that puts those Arab governments in a very difficult spot."
American officials and Middle East experts attribute the improved Saudi cooperation to several factors. As President Bush appears to move closer to ordering an attack against Iraq, Saudi officials do not want to cross a strategic ally at a pivotal time in the countries' relationship.
"They've been longtime strategic partners with the United States," Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a visit to the Persian Gulf this week.
But more broadly, Saudi officials are trying to repair the damage in American-Saudi relations stemming in part from the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States were Saudis. And Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington and his wife have been pressed to explain how payments she made to the ailing Jordanian wife of a Saudi man ended up in the hands of two Saudi men who have been under scrutiny for their close ties to hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Publicly, Saudi officials remain noncommittal about allowing their territory to be used as a staging area for war against Iraq.
Asked whether Saudi Arabia would allow the United States to use its bases in case of war, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told CNN last Sunday: "It depends on the war. If it is a war that is through the United Nations, with consensus on it, we will have to decide on that based on the national interests of Saudi Arabia."
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy here did not return two phone calls to his office.
None of this particularly disturbs senior American military officials and diplomats, who say they are accustomed to dealing with Saudi sensitivities, and the often conflicting views of the royal family, in private.
"Publicly, we'll never have the Saudis throw a parade and celebrate what they're doing for us, but in the end, they will be there," said a senior military official.
Given the past uncertainty regarding the Saudi position on use of their bases, however, the Pentagon made contingency plans in the event American forces' access was restricted.
The military built its alternate air command center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. It is just a few miles from the Central Command headquarters at Camp As Sayliyah where Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of American forces in the Persian Gulf region, would direct at least the early phases of any war.
The United States and Britain are stationing dozens of aircraft at a necklace of bases in Persian Gulf countries, including Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. American officials are negotiating with Turkey for use of several bases there and plan to station B-2 stealth bombers overseas for the first time, at Britain's Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean.
But the modern facilities, excellent communications, abundant fuel and supplies, and proximity to Iraq make the Saudi bases among the most attractive to American commanders.
For that reason, American officials, including the United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert W. Jordan, and the commander of allied air forces in the region, Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley of the Air Force, have continued discussions with their Saudi counterparts, including the Saudi ambassador here, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
American commanders said relations with their Saudi military counterparts had not suffered seriously from the political tensions in American-Saudi relations.
For example, restrictions on American training missions have been loosened in recent months, and Saudi military officers are playing an increasingly important role in the operations center at Prince Sultan, said General Jumper, who visited Saudi Arabia last month and has close ties with its senior military leaders.
"I don't think we should take, from any of the nations over there, their lack of instantly signing up to full cooperation as a sign of anything but them taking a careful approach to what they agreed to do," General Jumper said.