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U.S. likely to reduce presence in Saudi Arabia after war in Iraq

WASHINGTON—The United States and Saudi Arabia intend to drastically reduce or eliminate the politically sensitive U.S. military presence in the desert kingdom after any war with Iraq, according to senior officials from both nations.

The presence of U.S. combat troops, first deployed in 1990 to protect Saudi oil fields after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, has increasing drawbacks for both countries.

Many Saudis strongly object to having non-Muslim troops in the land of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

Terrorist leader Osama bin Laden uses the bases to accuse the United States of occupying the most important land of Islam. Moving the troops out of Saudi Arabia would eliminate one of his main stated reasons for attacking U.S. targets around the world.

Removing the troops also could make it easier for Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto leader, to move ahead with political and economic reforms that face deep-seated resistance, while simultaneously cracking down on violent fundamentalist movements.

"Having a smaller footprint is much more comfortable, both for us and for you," said a Saudi official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

In congressional testimony earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted at U.S. postwar intentions in the Persian Gulf.

"We'll be able to change the presence levels of American troops throughout that region in the absence of a threatening regime like Saddam Hussein's Iraq," Powell told the House International Relations Committee on Feb. 12.

The plans for the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia are an indication of vast changes that are likely to sweep the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East in the aftermath of a U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Saudi Arabia, the center of Islam's majority Sunni branch, fears that Saddam's ouster could lead to the establishment of a Shiite Muslim state on all or part of Iraq's territory. A majority of Iraqi Muslims are from the Shi'ia sect.

The Saudis have told U.S. officials they are willing to help pay the hefty cost of Iraq's reconstruction in order to help hold Iraq together and prevent the emergence of a rival, although no specific sums have been discussed, U.S. officials said.

"Their big concerns are the territorial integrity of Iraq," said a State Department official who requested anonymity.

The Bush administration's plans to foster a pluralistic democracy in Iraq after a period of direct U.S. military rule are unnerving monarchs and dictators throughout the region.

For more than a decade, the threat from Saddam has provided the rationale for stationing U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. Roughly 4,000 U.S. military personnel are involved in enforcing the "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq, a mission headquartered at Prince Sultan Air Base and known as Operation Southern Watch. The total of U.S. troops in the kingdom is about 5,000.

U.S. and Saudi officials said that formal talks have not yet begun on relocating the American airmen and soldiers.

The politically conservative Saudi royal family is unlikely to demand an immediate withdrawal if Saddam is overthrown, said a leading Saudi analyst. That would be "like having somebody to your house for dinner, and after the meal is over, showing them the door," he said.

Some non-combat U.S. military presence is likely to remain in any case, including a military training mission that dates to the 1950s and joint airborne surveillance operations.

The Pentagon already has moved the bulk of military operations in the region to other Persian Gulf states such as Qatar and Kuwait because of the political sensitivities in Saudi Arabia.

Still, for a potential war in Iraq, the Saudis have quietly agreed to allow Prince Sultan Air Base to be used for combat missions. Saudi territory and airspace also would be used for air refueling operations, special operations missions and air war coordination using Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft.

The eventual removal of U.S. troops appears to be part of a larger plan by Crown Prince Abdullah for sweeping changes in Saudi society.

U.S. and Saudi officials say that Abdullah appears to have decided that the royal family must crack down on Islamic fundamentalists who support terrorism because they threaten the monarchy.

Abdullah also has proposed a program of gradual economic and political liberalization, spurred by what Saudi officials and analysts say is a realization that Saudi Arabia must modernize in an era of globalization. Similar tentative experiments with reform are under way in some of Saudi Arabia's smaller neighbors, such as Qatar and Bahrain.

To make reforms stick, the crown prince will have to take on the powerful and conservative religious establishment that helps support the Saud family's rule.

A U.S. invasion of Iraq could cause an upsurge in anti-American fundamentalism in the short term, Middle East expert say. But having American troops depart ultimately could make it easier for Abdullah to push through reforms.

The Saudi official cautioned against drawing too strong a link between the two, however.

"One could go without the other," he said. "(But) it's always better to have less static in the air."

Abdullah, who assumed day-to-day control after his half brother King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, has proposed liberalizing Saudi Arabia's economy.

His political reforms would breathe life into professional associations and other civic institutions outside government control, now virtually nonexistent in Saudi society. Ultimately, local elections would be held.

The Saudi government recently agreed to a visit by the assistant secretary of state for human rights, Lorne Craner. Craner, believed to be the first U.S. human rights envoy permitted in the kingdom, will give a speech and meet with government officials in mid-April.

Last month, Human Rights Watch was allowed to send a delegation to Saudi Arabia.

It was "the first time we were able to get in after many years of trying," said Tom Malinowski, director of the group's Washington office.

The Saudi government sought "to project a desire to begin reforms," Malinowski said.

"There are elements of the Saudi royal family that really want to move ahead," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another faction—reportedly led by Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz and Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz—oppose the reforms.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.