RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—U.S. military personnel have begun to withdraw from Saudi Arabia as part of a redeployment of America's forces in the Persian Gulf, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced Tuesday.
Most U.S. forces at Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Air Base will be gone by August, members of Rumsfeld's entourage said. The allied air command, headed by Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, moved from Prince Sultan to Qatar's al Udeid air base Monday.
The decade-long presence of American forces in this conservative Islamic kingdom has been a source of discomfort to Saudi Arabia's ruling monarchy, particularly after the U.S.-led war against Iraq, which the Arab world widely opposed.
As many as 10,000 American personnel and 200 aircraft were assigned to the remote desert base at the height of the latest Iraq conflict. Troop strength already has been cut in half, U.S. officials said Tuesday. Eventually, only a small number of American troops will remain, primarily to train members of the Saudi military.
Rumsfeld, who is touring the region, addressed more than 1,300 troops Tuesday at the base, then went to an opulent palace in Riyadh for a joint news conference with Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the defense minister, for whom the base is named.
The Pentagon chief later met with Crown Prince Abdullah, the defense minister's half-brother and Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, before leaving for Kuwait.
"We've had quite a time here together, haven't we," Rumsfeld told a member of the royal family after arriving at Riyadh Air Base aboard a U.S. C-17 transport.
Rumsfeld said the planned American withdrawal from Prince Sultan Air Base was part of efforts to "refashion and rebalance" the U.S. military posture in the region after the American-led victory over Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. The realignment also could include bases in Europe, Rumsfeld said.
The strategy shifts away from maintaining large numbers of troops in select places and relies instead on gaining access to bases in more countries, said Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst with the Center for Defense Information, an independent research center in Washington.
"The word of the day is diversification, to borrow a term from Wall Street," Corbin said. "The idea is to have continued access for the U.S. military to do whatever is necessary in the Middle East, including the Israel situation. That access in the Persian Gulf allows the United States to use or threaten to use military force all over the Middle East."
Rumsfeld said "there is no question" that the allied victory in Iraq has changed the U.S. security requirements in the region. American officials have been steadily reducing the number of personnel and aircraft at the Saudi base since the air war began winding down several weeks ago. After flying thousands of strike missions during the height of the war, allied aircraft haven't dropped a bomb in more than a week.
While Saudi officials said they didn't request the withdrawal, the action could pre-empt critics of the ruling family, including Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden. The fugitive al Qaida leader, who is still believed to have a well-entrenched cadre of supporters in Saudi Arabia, has assailed the monarchy for permitting U.S. troops on Saudi land, which includes Islam's two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.
Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Abha-based Arabic newspaper al Watan, said Saudis welcomed an end to the American military presence.
"Saudi Arabia is proud of its independence and sovereignty," Khashoggi said. "Saudi Arabia has a special position as the cradle of Islam. It was very awkward for us throughout to have American troops in the kingdom."
Prince Sultan Air Base, about 80 miles south of Riyadh, was first used to stage U.S. airstrikes against Iraqi forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Over the last decade, American pilots also have flown thousands of missions from Prince Sultan to enforce a U.N.-imposed no-fly zone over southern Iraq.
The presence of U.S. forces, including a growing number of women, was regarded in some circles as an unsettling influence in a deeply religious society in which women shroud themselves in black gowns and veils and aren't permitted to drive.
In recent years, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, American troops weren't allowed off the base except to go to the airport or to conduct official business at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh.
On Tuesday, responding to a question by a Saudi reporter, Rumsfeld said the United States had no "hidden agenda" in accusing Syria of harboring fugitive leaders from Iraq and supplying Iraq with weapons during the war.
"Syria has permitted weapons to go into Iraq when we were at war with Iraq," Rumsfeld said. "We didn't like it and we said so."
But he added: "It's a mischaracterization to say we threatened Syria. We are not in the business of threatening."
In a hangar at Prince Sultan Air Base, Rumsfeld thanked the troops for their part in defeating Saddam's regime. "You have much to be proud of," he said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jessica Guynn contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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