(from the NY Times)
U.S. to Move Air Base to Qatar
By MICHAEL R. GORDON with ERIC SCHMITT
BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 27 — The United States is shifting its major air operations center for the Middle East from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, the first step in what is likely to be a significant reduction of American forces in Saudi Arabia and a realignment of American military presence in the region, senior military officials said today.
The day-to-day responsibility for overseeing hundreds of air missions in Iraq and the Middle East will be transferred this week from Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to a backup headquarters the United States built last year at Al Udeid Air base in Qatar, senior officials said.
A formal decision about whether to make this arrangement permanent has yet to be made by President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
But with the war in Iraq winding down and continued unease in Saudi Arabia about a large American military presence in the kingdom, American commanders believe that the time is right to see if the Qatar base can serve as the United States Central Command's air operations center of the future.
"Whether we'll stay there or not — not sure," Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the chief of the Central Command, said in an interview in Abu Dhabi. "But we do know that since we have it, we want to be able to run some operations out of it. So for the foreseeable future, and I don't know how long that is, we're going to move it over there and going to start running some air ops out of it."
Mr. Rumsfeld visited the United Arab Emirates and Qatar today as part of a trip to discuss with regional allies the shape and size of the American military commitment in the region after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. General Franks joined in Mr. Rumsfeld's talks.
American military commanders, especially Air Force officials, have long favored moving the air command post to Al Udeid from Saudi Arabia. United States commanders have chafed at restrictions the Saudis have placed on the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Senior Bush administration officials sought to emphasize that shifting the location of the command center should not be interpreted as an indication that the United States was ending its military relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has involved efforts to train Saudi forces, as well as the use of Saudi air bases.
"We are not leaving Saudi Arabia," a senior administration official said today.
While the talks are still under way, the shift of the air command center is the most noteworthy example of the emerging postwar American military structure in the region.
Maj. Gen. Victor E. Renuart, the Central Command's director of operations, said in an interview that having the command center in Al Udeid may be a good long-term strategic fit for the United States.
"Moving to Al Udeid is a sort of a natural progression for us as we look for a footprint that will be maintainable in the future," said General Renuart, who was also in Abu Dhabi. "It's just starting the process. There's a convenience in the fact we're adjusting the size. You don't need a CAOC designed to fly 3,000 missions if you're only flying a few hundred." CAOC is the acronym for the Combat Air Operations Center the military uses to command its air operations.
The United States is not planning to abandon the sophisticated air command center it opened at the Prince Sultan base in Saudi Arabia less than two years ago. General Renuart said the air command center in Saudi Arabia would probably go into "warm" status. The military plans to use it to oversee military exercises, and it could be reactivated in a crisis.
"There will be folks who continue to maintain equipment," General Renuart added. "It will allow us to come in and exercise."
For the military, however, Qatar is a more congenial location. A tiny nation of 750,000 people, Qatar has come to view the United States as its main protector in the region.
Qatar built Al Udeid Air Base in 1996 at the cost of more than $1 billion. The nation did not have an air force at the time, but it wanted to encourage the United States military to base its aircraft there.
U.S. to Move Air Base to Qatar
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The United States did not begin to use the base until Sept. 29, 2001, when the Air Force needed to get aircraft in position for its war against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan.
At the time, the United States use of the base was considered to be a military secret. But the Americans and the Qataris decided to acknowledge the role of Al Udeid. The coming-out for the base occurred when Vice President Dick Cheney stopped there during a trip to the region with a group of reporters in March 2002.
The Air Force also built a backup air command center at Al Udeid, which could be used to run an air campaign if the Saudis did not let the Americans direct combat operations from the Prince Sultan base.
Qatar has cooperated with the United States in other ways, as well. It allowed the United States to store enough armored equipment for a heavy Army brigade at its 262-acre Sayliya installation. The equipment there was later shipped to Kuwait and used by the Army's Third Infantry Division to invade Iraq.
Currently, the Sayliya complex serves as the Central Command's forward command post in the region.
American and Saudi officials have also said a visible American troop presence weakens the Saudi royal family rather than strengthening it because it only fuels the militant elements inside the country.
American commanders, in fact, have quietly activated the backup center at Al Udeid in recent months. During the war with Iraq, the command post was used to direct air operations in Afghanistan and in the Horn of Africa under the command of Brig. Gen. Robert Elder.
But now they plan to direct all air operations in the region from Qatar. General Renuart said the most immediate effect would be that the daily air-tasking order — the daily schedule of air missions in the region — would be prepared at Al Udeid instead of Prince Sultan.
Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the American who directed allied air operations in Iraq from Prince Sultan, is now expected to make Al Udeid his regional headquarters.
It was unclear how many American aircraft would ultimately remain in Saudi Arabia under any realignment. Military officials, however, expect that the American military presence there will shrink.
Now that the Bush administration is set to announce an end to the war, the United States is expected to restructure its forces in the region.
"In each place the secretary visits, and the dialogues he has, as well as I have with leaders in the region, there is an understanding that since the regime in Iraq is gone, and since there will no longer be a need for operation Northern Watch and Southern Watch, in days and months ahead there will likely be a rearrangement of the footprint in the region," General Franks told reporters traveling with Mr. Rumsfeld. He was referring to the names for the no-flight zones that the United States and Britain had been enforcing over Iraq for a decade.
When asked if those talks would ultimately result in smaller numbers of American troops in the region, General Franks initially said it was too soon to tell. But in the interview after the news conference, he said, "We don't want to wind up with more stuff in each one of these countries than we had before."