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No Aid for a U.S. Attack, Saudi Says

Traditional ally won't let bases or airspace be used in any move against Iraq, official declares.

November 04, 2002|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia will not permit bases on its soil to be used in an attack against Iraq, its northern neighbor, and will not grant flyover rights to U.S. military planes even if the United Nations sanctions an invasion, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said Sunday.

The remarks by the prince on CNN were the strongest Saudi rejection to date of any assistance to a possible U.S. attack on Iraq. Although the Pentagon says the U.S. is able to launch such an attack without Saudi assistance, military officials agree that having to do so would constrain the strategic options open to war planners.

Currently, more than 5,000 U.S. troops are based in Saudi Arabia, and the country is bristling with U.S. military equipment and weaponry. Nearly 12 years ago, an American base near Riyadh, the Saudi capital, was a launch pad for the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War, which drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait after a seven-month occupation.

The same base played a critical role in last year's campaign to drive the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. At the facility, Air Force commanders orchestrated many of the airstrikes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while vast teams of U.S. military computer specialists and other experts also made Riyadh their home.

"We can live without Saudi bases, but it obviously makes it tougher," one military official said Sunday. "If they don't at least give us flyover rights, it's going to be a lot more complex moving supplies and people over there."

Asked if Saud's comments marked a serious military setback to any U.S.-led effort against Iraq, Mary Matalin, counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, said on CNN's "Late Edition" that other allies in the region would fill the gap if necessary.

"We have many friends and allies in the region, and we have many friends and allies around the world," Matalin said. "... We would never engage unless we were sure that we could get the job done well."

Saudi officials have gone back and forth for months on the issue of basing rights for U.S. forces in the event of an invasion of Iraq -- most recently saying that the United States could use the bases if the attack was sanctioned by the U.N. -- and they had left the window open on allowing U.S. combat, reconnaissance or refueling planes to land on Saudi soil.

Sunday, however, Saud appeared to take Saudi opposition further.

"We will cooperate with the Security Council, but as to entering the conflict or using the facilities as part of the conflict, that is something else," Saud said when asked about allowing overflights by U.S. forces.

"Our policy is that if the United Nations takes a decision on Chapter 7, it is obligatory on all signatories to cooperate -- but that is not to the extent of using facilities in the country or the military forces of the country," he added.

Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter mandates that members of the world body implement any measure immediately as part of international law.

Pressed about whether the Saudi bases could be used, he gave a definite "No."

It was not clear what prompted the apparent shift in the Saudi position.

The Pentagon is considerably less dependent on Saudi assistance than it was during the Gulf War.

Then, Kuwait was occupied by the Iraqi army. This time, the emirate would be a major base for American troops and equipment. And faced with possible Saudi opposition to a war against Iraq, the United States has poured $1.4 billion into expanding Qatar's Al Udeid facility into a major air base and military staging ground.

Equipment for two reinforced Army armored brigades is already stored in 37 huge warehouses in Kuwait and Qatar. Each country holds in storage about 115 M-1A1 Abrams tanks, 60 M-2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles, 100 armored personnel carriers, 25 mortars and 20 155-millimeter howitzers.

Equipment for another armored brigade from the Army and one from the Marine Corps is afloat on ships in the region.

But Pentagon war planners continue to believe that Saudi Arabia's public opposition in recent months to the use of U.S. bases on its soil is mainly diplomatic posturing.

Every Persian Gulf government has publicly objected to an invasion of Iraq, but several, including Saudi Arabia, have allowed U.S. military forces to make war preparations on their territory.

"When push comes to shove, some arrangement will be worked out with Saudi Arabia," said MIT military analyst Owen Cote.

Saudi Arabia has been a strategic U.S. ally for more than half a century, but ties were severely strained by last year's Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, in which 15 of the 19 men believed to be the suicide hijackers were Saudis; by the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq; and by American support for Israel in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

The Saudi foreign minister said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's fate should be decided by the Iraqi people and warned against a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq -- an idea floated by some Bush administration officials in the last few weeks. There have been suggestions that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the war in Afghanistan, or one of his subordinates might take on the role held by Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Japan, where he oversaw the occupation government from 1945 to 1951 and helped to reform the country's political, social and economic institutions.

"History tells us that whatever change you believe you can bring to the country that you occupy, you can never make a permanent change through occupation by a foreign force in the country," Saud said.

"Iraq is not Japan. Saddam Hussein is not the Emperor Hirohito, and I don't know if the general ... is going to be MacArthur."

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