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U.S. Buildup Fraying Nerves in Saudi Arabia

Fearing domestic and regional instability, the monarchy is a reluctant host to the military.

March 18, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — There is a little slice of America in this desert capital. To see it, you drive half an hour south of the city center, out to where Riyadh's shimmering office towers and air-conditioned shopping malls give way to cement factories, power stations and the relentless desert sand.

There, behind concrete and barbed wire, lies the housing complex known as Eskan Village, home to about 100 U.S. military advisors and hundreds of other Defense Department employees and contractors.

The entrance to the compound was briefly closed Monday as guards searched a car thought to contain a small explosive. It turned out to be a false alarm. The strained nerves were not. As a possible conflict with Iraq looms closer, U.S. officials face the daunting prospect of coordinating major aspects of the air campaign deep within the frontiers of a reluctant ally.

This is not the Saudi Arabia that ushered in U.S. forces in 1990 to help fend off an Iraqi army marching toward its borders. This is a monarchy that fears political instability in the Middle East more than it fears Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a country that produced 15 of the Sept. 11 terrorists and that could, officials here say, witness significant acts of terror directed at U.S. forces with the opening of any new conflict with Iraq.

The kingdom's grudging approach to its partnership with the U.S. has slowed the course of the American military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the need to keep any moves as low-key as possible. Yet quietly, Saudi Arabia has cleared the way for a substantial U.S. presence, ranging from warplanes that in recent weeks have stepped up the pressure against air defenses in southern Iraq, to U.S. search and rescue forces positioned on the border with Iraq.

American officials say a major part of the air war could be coordinated from the U.S. Air Force's state-of-the-art combined aerospace operations center 60 miles southeast of Riyadh. Last fall, the Saudis were indicating that they would not allow the center to be used for that purpose, forcing the U.S. military to move some functions to Qatar.

It is an excruciatingly delicate balancing act for Saudi officials, who at once need to ensure that Iraqi forces can't attack their nation and to placate a population that sees any U.S.-led attack on Iraq as an assault on their religion and identity.

"I don't think any of you dislike Saddam more than we do. After all, it's not so far from here that his rockets hit during the Gulf War. None of us will be weeping over Saddam's disappearance," said an advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah. "But we worry. War starts today, and you don't know where tomorrow it will be, what the collateral damage will be; these are things we can't calculate. We hope and pray the suffering will end soon."

As the prospects for a diplomatic resolution with Iraq dimmed Monday, Americans working in the kingdom reported increasing public hostility -- "I've been cursed at. I've been spit at. I've been driven off the road twice," a software company manager living in Riyadh said -- and Saudis expressed growing unease with the prospect of war.

"The prophet Muhammad has warned us about this. This is the sign of the end of times," said Ajalam Ahmed, a 27-year-old communications student, as he strolled with a friend at one of downtown Riyadh's glitzy shopping malls.

Sources close to the Saudi royal family say it was only significant and sustained U.S. pressure that prompted the monarchy to agree to a number of key military concessions, including allowing U.S. Tomahawk missiles launched from ships in the Red Sea to travel through Saudi airspace, closing down a civilian airport on the Iraqi border for deployment of U.S. surveillance teams and -- most important -- use of the Air Force's air operations center at the Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh to help direct any air campaign against Iraq.

Still undecided is whether the large number of U.S. warplanes positioned at Prince Sultan to patrol a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq will be permitted to join any combat operations.

"The Saudi government position is they do not want to use Saudi Arabia for any attacks," said one U.S. official who requested anonymity. But the Americans don't necessarily consider the matter decided. "At the time, if hostilities do erupt, then they'll make that decision," the official said.

Another source said Saudi officials late last year "quietly changed the rules of engagement at U.S. requests to allow offensive missions" as well as aerial refueling operations for U.S. combat planes.

U.S. pilots flying out of Saudi Arabia recently have stepped up attacks on Iraq's air defenses in the southern no-fly zone in response to evidence that the Iraqis are preparing to engage the aircraft or move equipment and ammunition into the area to enhance antiaircraft systems.

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