U.S. base in Qatar may lead Iraq war


Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 12:36 a.m.
DOHA, Qatar - The U.S. military is installing a new command center at a heavily guarded base in this small Persian Gulf state that would be ready to serve as the main headquarters for a war on Iraq.
The official purpose of the work at the base, As Sayliyah, is to prepare for a major U.S. military exercise in December called Internal Look. But it will be no ordinary exercise. U.S. officials say that it will be the first time that a war game of its type has been conducted outside the United States and that the command and control procedures practiced would be the same used for a war with Iraq.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the head of the Central Command, is expected to arrive in about a week to take part in the exercise. About 750 staff members from the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command are also being sent.Franks will participate with top Army, Marine, Air Force, Navy and Special Operations commanders in the region. The command and control procedures that will be practiced would be used for a war with Iraq, military officials said, and As Sayliyah would serve as Franks' command center for such a conflict.
Western officials say the United States has not yet formally asked Qatar if it can use the country to run a war with Iraq. The official line is that the United States is merely flexing its muscles while waiting to see if Iraq cooperates with the United Nations.
Like many Persian Gulf states, Qatar's government is worried about the reaction in the Arab world to a U.S. attack on Iraq and hopes that a conflict can be avoided. That attitude seems natural in a country that is home to al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network that was started in 1996 with financing from Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
At the same time, Qatar has been more receptive to military cooperation with the U.S. military than neighboring Saudi Arabia, and it has spent more than $1 billion to build an air base, Al Udeid, to attract U.S. forces here.
The Qataris view Washington as their main protector against external threats in a volatile region. So the Bush administration is calculating that Qatar will allow use of its bases as a hub for a war with Iraq if Washington can mobilize enough support among members of the U.N. Security Council to provide the necessary political cover.
"The Qataris have decided that their future lies in having the closest possible ties with the United States," said Patrick N. Theros, the U.S. ambassador to Qatar from 1995 to 1998. "They are more likely to support a U.S. military action than some of their neighbors in order to maintain this relationship."
A tiny nation of about 750,000, Qatar operated in Saudi Arabia's shadow for years. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 jolted the Qataris, according to former Qatari officials and Western diplomats. Qatar saw that the Saudis were unable to defend themselves against a potential Iraqi threat, let alone protect other gulf states, the officials said. To protect their kingdom, the Saudis invited in the Americans.
"They woke up to the fact that they need superpower protection," a Western official said, referring to the Qataris.
Soon after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States and Qatar quietly signed a defense cooperation agreement that provided Washington with what one official called a "big green light" to set up operations here. In recent years, Qatar has emerged as vital real estate for U.S. military strategy in the Persian Gulf, in ways that many Qataris and Americans seem not to understand.
One crucial base is As Sayliyah, an installation completed in August 2000 at a cost of more than $100 million. The base has more than 20 climate-controlled warehouses, storing hundreds of M1 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and other armored vehicles - enough for an Army brigade. It includes a community center and living quarters for the approximately 300 U.S. troops that have been permanently based there. Qatar's willingness to allow the United States to build and operate the base is a breakthrough for the Pentagon, and it represents a level of cooperation that far outstrips what the Saudis have been prepared to offer. When Dick Cheney, who was then defense secretary, went to Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War to discuss storing a division's worth of Army equipment there, the Saudis turned him down.
Armored vehicles and other weapons from As Sayliyah have been quietly shipped to Kuwait, a transfer that the Pentagon initially cast as an exercise but that is seen as a preparation for war.
Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division, which is expected to play a key role if there is an invasion of Iraq, rumble around Kuwait on well-maintained, modern armored vehicles that still bear the shipping labels from the Qatar installation.
After the United States began shipping armored equipment out of As Sayliyah, the military began installing communications equipment there for the command center that Franks and about 750 members of his staff will use to conduct the exercise. Western officials say that the Qataris have long suggested that Central Command establish a headquarters here, and the exercise may be the first step.
It is what the military calls a command post exercise, meaning that the top U.S. commanders will carry out a war game that will simulate a campaign against an enemy in the region, but will not involve the deployment of troops. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf conducted such an exercise in July 1990 in Tampa that used the scenario of an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia.
U.S. commanders have not disclosed the classified scenario that they plan to use for the war game. But it is clear that the exercise will enable the military to test the command and control procedures it would use if there is a war with Iraq.
"We are going to train the way we might fight," said Vice Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the commander of the 5th Fleet and the top Navy commander in the region.
Military officials say that when the exercise is over in mid-December, Franks and his staff are scheduled to leave, barring an escalation of tensions with Iraq. But the exercise is likely to be under way as the United States and its allies review the declaration that Iraq is scheduled to submit Dec. 8 about its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Even if Franks leaves, the forward headquarters will be in place in case of war.
"All we have to do is hop on a plane and come forward," a military official said.
As Sayliyah is not the only base the U.S. military is using here. In a bid to lure the Americans, the Qataris built the Al Udeid Air Base. It was constructed in 1996, before Qatar even acquired an Air Force, an approach that Western officials quip is a classic example of the "if we build it they will come" approach. Qatar later bought 12 French Mirage fighter jets, but they are not stationed at Al Udeid.
The United States did not begin to use the base until Sept. 29, 2001, when Washington rushed to get its forces in position to attack the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

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