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A Command Center Rises From the Desert

Gulf: Flurry of U.S. activity at an air base hints at role Qatar might play in an Iraq strike.


AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar — For months, U.S. and Qatari officials denied there was anything special going on. But the frantic activities of earth-moving machines and hundreds of engineers have been too successful to keep the secret hidden.

Just 700 miles from Baghdad--almost in its backyard, given the reach of modern aircraft--the U.S. Air Force is rapidly enlarging this base, which could become a key command center for any strike against Iraq.

"It's a fairly robust operation," said Col. Timothy W. Scott, commander of a group of 24 jumbo refueling and cargo planes. On Wednesday, the military, with the approval of the Qatari government, allowed reporters to visit.

Scott said he could not speculate on how the base might be used if President Bush decides on military force to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But looking at the 12,000-foot runway, the officer noted that there is plenty of space for fighters and bombers.

"You could put a lot of smaller airplanes here," Scott said, adding with a laugh, "I'm a big-airplane guy myself."

Beyond its runway and command center, Al Udeid can also serve as a supply center for the equipment, munitions and weaponry needed by U.S. forces throughout the Persian Gulf. Huge warehouses--off limits to reporters--are maintained by a U.S. civilian contractor.

Next month, the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., will send 600 personnel here--about a quarter of its staff. The training mission, called Internal Look, is designed to test the command's ability to rapidly establish a forward command post. Some analysts believe that many of the people sent for the exercise will end up staying here.

"If we go to war with Iraq, the commanding officer should be in the region, not halfway around the world," said Ivan Eland, military analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "There were problems in Afghanistan when the command in Tampa was unaware of the situation in the theater."

The base, owned and operated by the Qatar Emiri Air Force, is a testament to the increasingly close relationship between the United States and Qatar. In a region where the U.S. sometimes has trouble finding friends, the emir of this tiny Persian Gulf nation has welcomed the Americans and not been reluctant to let the world know it.

"I won't say we have carte blanche, but anything we want, they're very responsive," said Scott, a navigator on a KC-135 Stratotanker. The planes are currently doing midair refueling missions for U.S. operations over Afghanistan.

The Stratotankers and the KC-10A Extenders perform the unglamorous but essential mission of midair refueling, which allows planes to stay longer over targets, waiting for the complex coordination between ground spotters and aircraft that is part of the modern method of waging war by air.

At the Qatari base, the U.S. is duplicating the computer-laden air operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have suggested that they will not allow the U.S. to use the base to organize and fly sorties into Iraq unless such an operation is sanctioned by the United Nations.

On the other hand, Qatar's ruler, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, is eager for closer ties with the U.S. and has set no such limitations. The Al Udeid Air Base also houses some of Qatar's dozen French Mirage jets.

In some ways, Al Udeid, 20 miles southwest of Doha, the capital, looks like a giant construction site. A 400-person Air Force engineering squad from Pennsylvania and New York is working at top speed.

The buildup began in the latter years of the Clinton administration but was kicked into high gear after the Sept. 11 attacks. A tent city for personnel was erected in 21 days; more than 2,000 Air Force personnel live in 300 air-conditioned tents. The tent city is named Camp Andy for Master Sgt. Evander Earl Andrews, a civil engineer who died here last October in a construction accident. He was the first war zone casualty for the U.S. after it launched its anti-terrorism campaign.

Americana have sprouted in the desert: a basketball court, a volleyball court, tents festooned with Halloween decorations and a recreation area called the Wagon Wheel.

U.S. and Qatari guards stand side by side. The former are young and cleanshaven, the latter are older and bearded. The Americans are treated to occasional trips into Doha, but only after being warned about the conservative customs of this Muslim country.

"You know what most of them want more than anything?" Scott said. "They want to take a shower that lasts more than five minutes. That's a luxury."

In the summer, the temperature on the runways can approach 140 degrees. "It's hot and very challenging," said Staff Sgt. Chamaco Johnson, 30, of Durant, Miss.

"Once you're acclimated to the temperature, it's not so bad," said Master Sgt. Tony Pinkney, 48, of West Palm Beach, Fla.

The Pentagon has been mum on the amount of U.S. investment. Most estimates range in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"By the time the war is over, I think people will see that as money well spent," said Tim Brown, military analyst with Alexandria, Va.-based GlobalSecurity, which monitors the movement of U.S. troops and equipment worldwide.

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