U.S. bolsters forces in Qatari desert

Published: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 12:00 a.m.
By ROBERT BURNS AP military writer AL-UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar - If President Bush ordered airstrikes on Iraq, this vast, remote and little-publicized base in the central Persian Gulf would be a critical hub for U.S. warplanes and their aerial pipeline of bombs and supplies.
The government of Qatar is spending millions of dollars to expand al-Udeid. In months past, the U.S. military quietly has moved munitions, equipment and communications gear to the base from Saudi Arabia, the control center for American air operations in the Gulf for more than a decade.
About 3,300 American troops are in Qatar, mostly at al-Udeid. The base is an isolated outpost amid a flat, seemingly endless stretch of scrubby desert about 20 miles from Doha, Qatar's capital.
Signs of an American military buildup are unmistakable:
  • A tent city has sprouted, along with huge, air-conditioned warehouses and miles of security barriers that attest to the U.S. military's sharpened focus on protecting troops against terrorist attack.
  • Freshly paved runways and aircraft parking ramps stretch deep into the desert. Al-Udeid's main, 15,000-foot runway is the longest in the region and can handle the largest Air Force transport planes.
  • Newly built hangars for fighter aircraft are hardened to withstand aerial attack.
    "It is likely the most capable base in the Gulf region," said William Arkin, a private military analyst.
    In a sign of al-Udeid's importance to the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney visited the base in March and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stopped to see the troops in June.
    Al-Udeid is by no means the only important U.S. military base in the Gulf area. Nearly 10,000 U.S. Army soldiers are at Camp Doha in Kuwait and an additional 4,200 troops are in Bahrain, headquarters for the Navy's 5th Fleet. Several thousand are in Saudi Arabia and a few thousand in Oman.
    There has been speculation that al-Udeid is being built up as either an alternative to, or replacement for, the Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis do not favor a U.S. invasion of Iraq, and they might forbid use of the air control center at Prince Sultan.
    U.S. government policy is to achieve "regime change" in Iraq, and President Bush has made clear that this could mean military action to topple President Saddam Hussein. Bush asserts that Saddam is building weapons of mass destruction and cannot be trust to keep such weapons out of the hands of terrorists. Bush has not ruled out ordering pre-emptive strikes to eliminate the Iraqi threat.
    Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said this year he had no plans to move the air control center. But he added, "That does not mean that I don't have plans to replicate it." He also said early in the Afghanistan war that he was considering moving his Central Command headquarters from Tampa, Fla., to Qatar, although he eventually chose not to.
    Qatar is small - roughly the size of Connecticut - but its location on the western shores of the Gulf, bordering Saudi Arabia, make it well suited for air operations against Iraq.
    U.S. officials will not discuss specifics, such as the number of aircraft at al-Udeid. They say the Qatari government strictly limits what can be said about the American presence. An information packet given to American reporters who accompanied Rumsfeld on a recent visit said the only military base in Qatar that the Qataris permit to be publicly identified is al-Udeid.
    There are two other important U.S. military posts in Qatar. One is at Camp As-Sayliyah, on the outskirts of Doha, where tanks and other armored vehicles, ammunition and tons of other Army equipment are stored. These supplies and materials can fully outfit for combat an Army brigade of about 5,000 soldiers. In the event of war, the soldiers would fly to Qatar and match up with their equipment.
    The Army also runs Camp Snoopy, adjacent to Doha's main airport. It is a logistics hub, receiving tons of supplies - everything from food and fuel to medicines and munitions - by air and sorting them out for delivery in the region. About 900 U.S. soldiers work at Camp Snoopy.
    There is even a team of Army veterinarians based in Qatar. They provide medical care for the military's bomb detection dogs and they conduct food safety inspections in six locations in the Middle East.
    The Associated Press Vice President Dick Cheney greets American troops stationed at the al-Udeid Air Base outside Doha, Qatar on March 17.
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