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U.S. base in Qatar is nerve center for command of Iraq war

DOHA, Qatar—In days past, Camp As Sayliyah was a remote supply dump, a few sand-ravaged buildings hunkered down in the Arabian desert. Now, after an expansion costing more than $58 million, it is the U.S. military's Command Deployable Headquarters—the forward nerve center for any war with Iraq—crackling with portable, electronic wizardry.

The sprawling 262-acre installation is enclosed by a rock berm, chain link fence and razor wire ringing 34 tan and green warehouses, each slightly larger than a football field. The warehouses once stored hundreds of M-1 Army tanks and artillery. Now the tanks have moved to desert bases in northern Kuwait. In their place are the high-tech tools of command and control.

From the base Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall allied commander of any war with Iraq, could direct operations from portable, air-conditioned Quonset huts erected inside one of the warehouses. More than 1,000 U.S., British and Australian military commanders and support troops are housed at the base.

As Sayliyah's companion facility is the nearby top-secret Al Udeid air base, a Qatari military airstrip built by the United States at a cost of $1 billion. While reporters are flooding As Sayliyah, Al Udeid remains off limits to visitors, particularly media.

Western diplomats say Qatar's ruler, the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is concerned about reports of war planes being housed at the base. Allowing the U.S. military to direct a strike from Qatar is one matter, actually launching them is another.

"The emir is in a delicate situation," a diplomat said. "He wants to keep Al Udeid quiet."

However, F-16 fighter jets and even F-117A Stealth fighter/bombers have been spotted taking off and landing from Al Udeid and from the Doha International Airport. B-52 bombers are said to be at the ready. And specialized planes for psychological operations, electronic warfare and reconnaissance are supposed to be located there.

The warplanes join the base's announced tenants—KC-10 and KC-135 refueling tankers—and a steady stream of C-17, C-130 and Galaxy transport planes.

As Sayliyah, however, is a U.S. Army base, and teams of media handlers have shuttled gaggles of reporters on tours of it since a war game was conducted in December.

The base's inner-workings are deemed "top secret," but it is also home to the U.S. military's media center where Franks and his battle team will brief the world on the progress of any operations.

Among the key officials here: Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, considered the highest ranking U.S. military officer with an extensive knowledge of the political and cultural complexities of the Middle East and a likely candidate for a prominent role in post-Saddam Iraq.

Also here: U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, who served in the 1991 Gulf War and was a commander in the campaign to bring food to lawless Somalia in the early 1990s.

As Sayliyah officials stress that the men, in any combination, can run the war from Tampa, Fla., the Pentagon or Doha, and that the mobile headquarters in Qatar can be packed up quickly and shipped to any of the 25 countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that fall under Central Command's responsibility.

For now, the headquarters is here, in 20 huge steel shipping containers and large tents.

The cortex of the operation is the top-secret Joint Operations Center (JOC). In the vault-like space, some 40 officers sit elbow-to-elbow at three rows of desks working at laptop computers or talking on telephones.

Flat plasma video screens hang on the front wall with maps of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

From here, U.S. Central Command staff officers and British and Australian allies can confer with commanders in the field, the Pentagon and the White House by video and audio links. They can talk directly to troops in the field and watch real-time pictures of targets, battlefields and damage.

Hundreds of teleconferences can be conducted from the center simultaneously, some using technologies less than a few months old.

Franks' spokesman Jim Wilkinson, a civilian, has called it "a new way to fight a war."

He is in charge of the massive press operation at As Sayliyah, which expects to host up to 2,000 reporters, photographers and technicians from around the world.

Like Franks and his deputies, Wilkinson could be a face of the war on the nation's television screens, broadcasting from a huge set in the media center that is filled with an array of plasma screens and electronics backdrops.


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