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US to reduce military in ME, maybe from Saudi Arabia


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The United States will reduce its military presence in the Persian Gulf because the threat from Iraq has vanished, but no decision has been made on whether to move a combat air command center from Saudi Arabia, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday.

RUMSFELD, VISITING QATAR on a week-long tour of the gulf, said for the first time that the normal U.S. military presence in the oil-rich area will go below pre-Iraq war levels.

“The one thing we do know is that we’re going to be able to reduce the size of our forces, obviously,†Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him in the region.

U.S. forces in the gulf grew to more than 200,000 for the Iraq war. They normally stand at about 15,000, including 5,000 aboard an aircraft carrier.

But Rumsfeld, without providing specific details, indicated they would go even lower.

“Iraq was a threat in the region. And because that threat will be gone, we also have the ability to adjust some of our arrangements,†he said after meeting with Qatar’s leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Australian Defense Minister Sen. Robert Hill, who also is touring the region.

Asked about reports that the Pentagon might move operations at a high-tech Combined Air Operations Center from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia to al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Rumsfeld said no decisions had been made about individual deployments.


“We’ve not made final decisions with respect to how we’re going to be arranged at various bases,†he said.

The air war that smashed Iraqi targets was overseen by controllers at Prince Sultan Air Base in the Saudi desert. But Saudi Arabia refused to let U.S. and other attack jets launch strikes against Iraq from its bases.

The New York Times reported Monday that the U.S. military was transferring its major Middle East air operations center from Saudi Arabia to Qatar this week.

“Whether we’ll stay there (Qatar) or not — not sure,†the paper quoted Franks as saying earlier in the United Arab Emirates.

“But we do know that since we have it (al-Udeid), we want to be able to run some operations out of it. So for the foreseeable future ... we’re going to move it over there and going to start running some air ops out of it.â€

The Times said the move was an acknowledgement of militant Muslim opposition to the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia but quoted senior Bush administration officials whom it did not identify as saying that the shift does not indicate the United States is ending its military relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Earlier Monday, Rumsfeld told cheering U.S. troops in Qatar that the U.S.-led war in Iraq was a historic success that will influence military spending and doctrine for decades.


The military, he said, used “an unprecedented combination of power, precision, speed, flexibility, and, I would add, compassion.â€

“Baghdad was liberated in less than a month, possibly the fastest march on a capital in modern military history,†Rumsfeld said.

He spoke to hundreds of desert camouflage-clad troops in a warehouse here at the command headquarters for the Iraq campaign. Though the troops in Qatar were involved in command and logistics, not direct combat, they played a key role, the secretary said.

“You protected our country from a gathering danger and liberated the Iraqi people,†Rumsfeld said. Later, he added: “You liberated a country, but how you did it will help transform the way we defend our country in the 21st century.â€

Rumsfeld is visiting the Persian Gulf region this week to thank the troops and discuss the future U.S. military presence with leaders of allied nations. He also plans to visit Afghanistan to see government leaders and U.S. troops.

Although Rumsfeld said his trip to the region is not a “victory tour,†he and Franks were clearly celebrating the U.S. success in toppling Saddam’s regime.

“Because of all of you, Iraqis are able to raise their voices in debate without fear of torture or death,†Franks told the troops Monday.


Rumsfeld also lashed out at early critics of the war.

“There were a lot of hand-wringers around, weren’t there?†a grinning Rumsfeld said in response to a question about commentators second-guessing the war. Rumsfeld said a Washington humorist told him, “Never have so many been so wrong about so much.â€

The defense secretary also praised Franks for what Rumsfeld called a great plan with “brilliant execution.â€

Rumsfeld said Turkey’s decision to block the Army’s 4th Infantry Division from invading northern Iraq from bases in Turkey was “disappointing.†But he said Franks turned that disappointment into an advantage by having the ships carrying the division’s equipment linger off the coast of Turkey.

That move, Rumsfeld said, gave Saddam’s regime the idea that the war wouldn’t start until the United States could open a northern front. As it happened, the bulk of the American ground force invaded from Kuwait, Iraq’s southern neighbor.

After their speeches, Rumsfeld and Franks posed for photographs with troops and autographed their hats.

One of the soldiers in the crowd, Army Pfc. Michael Gaskins of Tallahassee, Fla., said he appreciated Rumsfeld’s visit, but thought other troops deserved the thanks more than those at Central Command headquarters.

“There are a lot worse places than here,†he said. “I’d rather be home, but this is not bad at all.â€


Franks and Rumsfeld met Sunday with officials in the United Arab Emirates on the first stop of a tour of the region. After talks with the Crown Prince Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the son of the UAE president, the UAE defense minister, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and chief of staff of the armed forces, Lt. Gen. Sheik Mohammad Zayed Al Nahyan, Rumsfeld and Franks said U.S. forces would not be leaving the region any time soon.

“We assured them that the United States intends to do what is necessary to make sure there is a secure environment in Iraq,†Rumsfeld said.

“There’s no question but that the people of this region are safer today than they were when the Saddam Hussein regime was in power.â€

Franks said after the meeting that the U.S. military presence in the region might increase, at least in the short term, as stability and humanitarian relief missions in Iraq and Afghanistan continue.

U.S. troops have used bases in the UAE since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which the UAE joined the coalition to oust Saddam’s invading forces from Kuwait. U.S. aircraft using the al-Dhafra air base near Abu Dhabi have included U-2 and Global Hawk surveillance planes as well as refueling tankers.

On other topics, Rumsfeld and Franks said they are pleased with progress in the search for top members of Saddam’s government. Ordinary Iraqis are a big help, Franks said.

“They want these people out of their country,†Franks said.

U.S. forces announced Sunday they had captured Lt. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, Saddam’s chief contact with U.N. weapons inspectors.

Amin was No. 49 on the U.S. list of 55 most wanted Iraqis. His capture brings to 13 the number of officials on that list whom U.S. officials have acknowledged as being in custody.


Former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz seems to be cooperating with his American interrogators, but his claims must be checked to see if they are true, Franks said. Aziz turned himself in to U.S. forces in Baghdad on Thursday.

“How cooperative and how truthful he is, we’ll have to see over time,†Franks said.

The general said the United States will have to search several thousand sites for evidence of Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. U.S. forces started the war with a list of about 1,000 suspect sites, and for each site on the list, Iraqis tell Americans about one or two others, Franks said.

U.S. troops found about a dozen 55-gallon drums in an open field in northern Iraq, and initial tests indicated one of them contained a mixture of a nerve agent and mustard agent, a U.S. officer said Sunday.

Iraq is becoming more stable and secure every day, Franks said, but it is up to President Bush and Rumsfeld to decide when to declare that major combat is over. Tensions inside Iraq still simmer, he said.

“There is a great deal of uncertainty. There is a great deal of fear,†Franks said. “There are tribal animosities. There are religious animosities.â€

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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