WASHINGTON - Saudi Arabia’s rulers are increasingly uncomfortable with the US military presence in their country and may soon ask that it end, according to several Saudi sources. Such a decision would deprive the United States of regular use of the Prince Sultan Air Base, from which American power has been projected into the gulf region and beyond for more than a decade.

Senior Saudi rulers believe the US has ”overstayed its welcome” and that other forms of less conspicuous military cooperation should be devised once the United States has completed its war in Afghanistan, according to a senior Saudi official. The US has been using a state-of-the-art command centre on the Prince Sultan base that was opened last summer as a key command-and-control facility during the Afghan conflict.

Saudis give several reasons for deciding that the Americans should leave, beginning with their desire to appear self-reliant and not dependent on US military support. The US presence has become a political liability in domestic politics and in the Arab world, Saudi officials say. The Saudi government has also become increasingly uncomfortable with a role in US efforts to contain Saddam Hussein, and earlier ruled out use of Saudi territory as a base for bombing raids on Iraq.

The withdrawal of US aircraft would end a US presence that began during the Persian Gulf War and, administration officials warned, would seriously undermine US ability to protect Saudi Arabia or Kuwait as well as carry out all future operations in Iraq.

Past and present US officials said a Saudi decision to ask the Americans to pull forces out of their country could also complicate the Saudi-US relationship, which was put under great strain by the events of Sept. 11, and appear to give the impression of rewarding Osama bin Laden, who has vilified the royal family for hosting US troops, about 5,000 at the present time.

Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said this week that United States should consider moving its forces out of the kingdom. “We need a base in that region, but it seems to me we should find a place that is more hospitable. I don’t think they want us to stay there. The Saudis actually think somehow they are doing us a favor by having us be there helping to defend them.”

Saudi officials who spoke about a US withdrawal emphasized that nothing would be done precipitously. They said that Crown Prince Abdullah was sensitive to the need to avoid creating the impression that he was responding to pressure from Osama. These Saudis emphasized that Saudi-American relations would remain close, and would continue to include a military component. ”You (Americans) would still have access” to Saudi bases after a withdrawal, one adviser to the crown prince said.

US troops went to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to fight the Persian Gulf War against Iraq at a moment when both countries feared that Iraq might march from Kuwait into the kingdom. The two governments never signed an agreement about their presence in the country. Though it has long been considered an intimate ally of the United States, Saudi Arabia is the only Persian Gulf nation with which the United States has no formal defence cooperation agreement. “The Saudis argue, “We’re such good friends, there’s no reason to put anything in writing,” said a Defence Department official who has worked intimately with Saudi Arabia.

The same official noted that the US promised in 1990 to withdraw its contingent from Saudi Arabia - which at its height included 500,000 troops - “when the job is done.” Saudis, this official said, interpreted that to mean the job of expelling Iraq from Kuwait, but many US officials think the job remains undone as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power in Baghdad.

The Saudis’ sensitivity has led to numerous restrictions on US use of their facilities, including telling the US not to use planes based in Saudi Arabia for bombing raids against Iraq, which have continued sporadically for the last decade. Earlier this year, the Saudis told the US not to use Saudi airspace for any flights into or out of Iraqi airspace. In various ways, the Saudis have been signalling their growing discomfort with what has come to look increasingly like a permanent US military presence in their country. Both sides talk of growing frustrations in dealing with each other. —Dawn/LAT-WP News Service (c) The Washington Post.

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