DOHA, Qatar — U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Qatar's foreign minister signed an agreement Wednesday giving American armed forces broader and more permanent access to a new $1-billion air base just 700 miles from Baghdad.
Beneath crystal chandeliers in a palace of Florentine marble and porcelain, Rumsfeld and Sheik Hamad Jassim ibn Jaber al Thani announced a pact that deepens America's military alliance with this strategic, energy-rich Persian Gulf state. They also sought to distance the agreement from America's mounting war exercises in the region and tough rhetoric aimed at Iraq.
"The agreement we have signed today is not connected to Iraq. It is an agreement that has been under discussion for many, many weeks and months," Rumsfeld said. "It is simply the latest element in a defense cooperation between our two countries, and it is a good one and one that we are very pleased with, but I think it would be a mistake to connect it to Iraq."
American forces have been using Al Udeid Air Base, which is likely to play a key role in any U.S. attack on Iraq, for months under a decade-old defense agreement. That pact was updated two years ago to include the new base.
The Qatar Emiri Air Force owns and operates the base. The Qatari government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the facility mainly to accommodate an expanded U.S. military presence. More than 5,000 U.S. personnel are stationed at Al Udeid and at least three other military bases in Qatar, including Camp As Sayliyah.
In detailing the classified agreement, Rumsfeld said only that it further expands "quality of life" and technology at U.S. installations -- buzzwords, analysts said, for a more permanent high-tech military presence 20 miles southwest of Doha, the capital.
The timing of the signing ceremony dovetailed with war games that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the region, is running from a new mobile forward headquarters at Camp As Sayliyah. Franks attended the ceremony.
It also coincides with U.S. Army live-fire exercises near the Iraqi border in northern Kuwait.
Most Arab analysts here said the new pact was bound to send another strong signal to Baghdad, which traditionally has maintained close personal and diplomatic ties to Qatar and members of its ruling family.
The growing U.S. military relationship with this nation of 800,000, where U.S. energy firms have invested about $30 billion to exploit the world's third-largest natural gas reserves, has provoked soul-searching among Qataris. Officially, Qatar says it needs the American forces here to safeguard its people, resources and investments in an unstable region.
But most Qataris oppose the U.S. using their country as a base for any military operations against Iraq, according to political analysts and ordinary Qataris. Many are further angered by President Bush's unflagging support for Israel and the American backlash against Arabs after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The growing U.S.-Qatari military ties also feed into the country's complex relationship with Iraq.
A Qatari military regiment fought alongside U.S.-led coalition forces who drove Iraq from Kuwait in 1991; it was the first to plant its flag on liberated Kuwaiti sand.
But Qatar also was among the nations that maintained diplomatic relations with Baghdad after Iraq invaded its southern neighbor. And Iraq has allowed members of Qatar's royal family to continue their Bedouin tradition of annual trips with hunting falcons to the Iraqi desert.
Qatar's foreign minister stressed Wednesday that Doha has no intention of interfering in Iraq's internal affairs, flatly rejecting rumors that it planned to play host to members of Iraq's exiled political opposition.
Hamad Jassim also sought to downplay the significance of the new base agreement. He called Rumsfeld's trip here "a normal visit between friends," although he acknowledged that "the relationship between both countries has been growing."
Rumsfeld spun the visit into the overarching theme of his trip, which also included visits to Eritrea, Ethiopia and the tiny East African state of Djibouti. The tour, he said, was meant to applaud countries in the region for fighting terror.
"I thanked the minister for the wonderful cooperation ... in our global war on terror," Rumsfeld said in relating his closed-door session with the sheik.