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A YEAR AFTER

U.S. Central Command Will Deploy 600 to Air Base in Qatar

Military: More than a quarter of the Florida-based personnel will move to the Persian Gulf nation, perhaps permanently.

September 12, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a move that would help preparations for a war with Iraq, the Florida-based command headquarters responsible for U.S. military operations in the Persian Gulf is deploying more than a quarter of its 2,000 people temporarily to an air base in Qatar, military officials said Wednesday.

About 600 military personnel now at U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Fla., will be sent to Qatar in November for a training exercise designed to test the readiness of newly designed mobile communications facilities, said Lt. Col. Jim Yonts, a spokesman for Central Command.

The exercise is scheduled to last a week, and all personnel are expected to return to Florida by early December, Yonts said.

But a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the permanent transfer of a significant portion of Central Command's functions to Qatar is "something that is under consideration."

Yonts said planning for the training exercise had been in the works for several years. But the decision to base the exercise in Qatar, as opposed to another country, is more recent, he said.

Qatar is viewed as a prospective regional command center for any U.S. military campaign against Iraq. Word of the exercise emerged as President Bush seeks international support for a campaign to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power.

Since 1991, when it ran the Persian Gulf War out of an air base in Saudi Arabia, Central Command has kept much of its equipment at the Saudi facility and based about 5,000 troops there.

But for months, unsure about Saudi cooperation in the future, the U.S. military has quietly moved munitions, troop supplies and communications equipment to Qatar. Among the capabilities being developed at Al Udeid Air Base, about 20 miles from the capital, Doha, is an air operations center that duplicates the facility used by U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia.

In recent months, a tent city and air-conditioned warehouses have sprouted up at Al Udeid. Runways and aircraft parking ramps have been freshly paved or built from scratch, and hangars for fighter jets, reinforced to withstand aerial attack, have been constructed.

Both Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have visited Al Udeid this year.

Gen. Tommy Franks, head of Central Command, has run the 11-month-old war in Afghanistan from his Tampa headquarters. Periodically he travels abroad to consult with his commanders and local government officials. U.S. forces have made heavy use of facilities in Saudi Arabia for the Afghan campaign.

But Franks' aides and other military commanders have complained about the complications of running a war from a command post several time zones away.

Franks is likely to visit Qatar during the exercise in November but is expected to return promptly to Tampa, Yonts said. The command post exercise, dubbed Internal Look, has been held biennially in the Gulf region since 1990.

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