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US moving Saudi air ops to Qatar: Report

April 28, 2003 17:45 IST

The US military is transferring its major Middle East military air operations centre from Saudi Arabia to Qatar this week, The New York Times reported on Monday.

Citing military officials, the newspaper said the shift is 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.

With the war in Iraq winding down and continued unease in Saudi Arabia over the US military presence in the kingdom, American commanders said now is a good time to see if the Qatar base can serve as the US Central Command's air operations centre of the future, the newspaper said.

"Whether we'll stay there or not -- not sure," General Tommy Franks, the chief of the Central Command, was quoted as saying 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."

A formal decision about whether to make this arrangement permanent has yet to be made by President George W Bush and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld visited the United Arab Emirates and Qatar this weekend 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. Franks also joined Rumsfeld's talks.

According to the newspaper, Major General Victor Renuart, the Central Command's director of operations, said that having the command centre in Qatar might be a good long-term strategic fit for the US.

"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 Gen Renuart, who also spoke in Abu Dhabi. The Times said, however, the US does not plan to abandon the air command centre it opened in Saudi Arabia less than two years ago.

General Renuart told the Times the air command centre in Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh would probably go into 'warm' status. The military plans to use it to oversee military exercises, and it could be reactivated in a crisis, the paper reported.

"There will be folks who continue to maintain equipment," said General Renuart. "It will allow us to come in and exercise."

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