Saudi official, under U.S. pressure, backtracks somewhat on denial of bases

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Tue Nov 5 10:09:03 MST 2002

Probably the sharpest indication of the Saudi regime's  reluctance to
support the planned massive escalation of  Washington's war against Iraq was
the recall of the Saudi ambassador to Qatar, which has thrown itself open to
the U.S. military.
Fred Feldman

New York Times, Nov. 5
No Decision Yet on Letting U.S. Use Bases, Saudi Says

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4 - The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said
today that the kingdom had not decided whether it would make its airspace
and air bases available to the United States in the event of war with Iraq.

Speaking by telephone from Riyadh, Prince Saud sought to amend remarks he
made in a CNN interview over the weekend, in which he appeared to state that
Saudi Arabia would not allow an American-led coalition to use Saudi air
bases and airspace to attack Iraq.

The remarks on CNN caught Bush administration officials by surprise. They
conducted urgent consultations with Saudi officials today before formulating
a response indicating that Washington did not think Saudi Arabia had closed
the door to providing American forces with military support.

Today, Prince Saud said there had been a misunderstanding about his use of
the word "no" when asked in the CNN interview if Saudi bases could be used
in a military operation against Iraq. He said today that if Iraq "refuses
the implementation" of the United Nations resolutions "concerning
inspections" of its programs for weapons of mass destruction, Saudi Arabia
would be obliged to "cooperate" with the United Nations.

"But that does not mean we have to join the fighting or indeed to leave our
bases for use," he said, adding, "This is a sovereign right of Saudi Arabia
to decide when the time comes."

Pressed on whether Saudi Arabia's day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah,
had made a decision on the critical question of whether to support an
American-led military campaign, Prince Saud said he could not go further.
"No foreign minister who wants to keep his job," he said, can say what the
ruling family will decide if war returns to the region.

Experts said Prince Saud's backtracking reflected the tension in the Saudi
royal family between pro-American moderates promoting quiet military
cooperation with the United States under a United Nations mandate, and more
conservative princes angry at the rancor and recrimination focused on Riyadh
since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It is not an easy time for them because they have their own public opinion
and crusty members of the family," said Richard W. Murphy, a Middle East
specialist and assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration.

"There is obvious tension among senior members of the family," he added.
"People feel we unjustly pushed them around roughly for a year and are very
much aware of our military vulnerability there, and they would like to close
it out." Others, he said, are seeking "cover" from the United Nations "so
they can quietly cooperate with us" and eliminate Saddam Hussein's rule from
the region.

Since September, when Prince Saud said publicly that the Bush
administration's decision to work through the United Nations on Iraq would
oblige other nations to "follow through," it has been widely believed in the
United States military that Riyadh would put its basing and storage
facilities at the disposal of American and allied forces in the event of a
confrontation with Iraq. The crucial Saudi installation is the Prince Sultan
Air Base, which was designed and built by the United States to house the air
staff of the Central Command in wartime. "They cannot do it without us," one
Saudi diplomat said.

Just in case, officers of the Central Command have established a command
post in Qatar, one of the sheikdoms on the Persian Gulf coast. A week ago,
Lt. Gen. Charles F. Wald, commander of the air war in Afghanistan and
incoming deputy commander of the United States European Command, expressed
confidence on the Saudi basing question. "I don't know why they wouldn't be
participants with us if there was a reason to do this," he said.

At a Pentagon news briefing today, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said
he did not think that Prince Saud's remarks on CNN represented a policy
shift because they were carefully hedged. "I don't find it notable in any
sense," Mr. Rumsfeld said of the interview.

Also today, a senior Air Force official said top Pentagon aides were playing
down the foreign minister's comments. "The reaction here was more like,
`There they go again,' " the official said. "It may be meaningful and
lasting. But it's not necessarily the last word. Sometimes with them, black
doesn't mean black. It means gray."

Prince Saud said his country was focused on achieving a consensus for a
strong resolution on Iraq in the United Nations Security Council, so
inspectors could return with access to everything they demand to see. "A
peaceful solution for the Iraqi question is at hand," he said, adding that
Iraq's as yet untested promise to comply with inspectors' demands "gives us
tremendous hope that this will be solved diplomatically."

But there were other, deeper concerns that Prince Saud said caused him to
put a premium on diplomacy: the continuing turmoil in the Holy Land; the
Turkish elections heralding a return of Islamic politics; and the crisis
over North Korea's openly declared nuclear weapons program.

"If you put all these things together," he said, "one of the reasons why we
are concentrating so much on resolving the Iraqi question peaceably is
because that would maintain the focus" on "resolving the Palestinian
question," and "then we could concentrate on an issue like the threat from
North Korea."

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