US consolidating military presence in Gulf to control Muslim heartland

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Recent reports that US forces were preparing to leave their bases in Saudi Arabia created the initial impression that the US’s military presence in the Gulf Cooperation Council states was about to be reduced. But with US forces reportedly in the process of relocating to neighbouring Qatar instead of leaving the region, and with Washington engaged in acquiring alternative bases in at least four of the GCC countries, it is becoming clear that the US government is determined to increase the American military presence there, rather than reduce it.

This is partly a reflection of the need for staging-posts, a need created by the US-led ‘war on terrorism’, and partly of the unprecedented role which the Pentagon and the office of the vice-president are allowed by president George Bush to play in the formulation of US Middle Eastern policy – an issue that until recently had been strictly within the domain of the state department and the presidency.

The presence of US forces in the Arabian Peninsula, the site of Islam’s two holiest places, has always caused friction, which the ruling family of al-Saud has been uncomfortable with but able to handle, despite frequent criticism from Islamic activists and scholars. In recent months, however, the issue has become explosive, and the Saudis have responded by imposing restrictions on Washington’s freedom to use its bases in the kingdom as staging-posts. The first restriction was that Riyadh refused to allow the bases to be used in the Afghan war, and recent reports are that Washington has now been told that it cannot use them in the impending war against Iraq. The Americans were annoyed at first but soon accepted the restrictions as an opportunity to develop alternative staging-posts elsewhere in the region, and for their Saudi allies to counter accusations that they are a tool of US imperialism and interests in the Middle East.

When the US forces are finally ready to leave their Saudi bases they will move to al-Udeid airbase in southern Qatar, which normally hosts abut a thousand US air force personnel and a pre-positioning store containing at least enough equipment for an armoured brigade. But since the Afghan war several thousand additional servicemen have been stationed at this base, and the number of USAF military flights from it and from Doha airport has increased sharply. The supplies carried during these flights are diverse: even drinking water for American troops in Afghanistan. Al-Udeid is expected to become a permanent post for many of the personnel and aircraft already stationed there, but it may come to play a much more significant role in the Pentagon’s war plans, as some American generals – including General Antony Zinni, the US peace envoy to the Middle East- are known to advocate the transfer of the headquarters of the central command expeditionary operations from Fort Lauderdale (Florida, US) to Qatar, because it is far closer to the theatre of operations.

Qatar, which signed a defence pact with the US after the second Gulf war and remains a staunch ally, is not expected to deny the US the right to use al-Udeid airbase even if military operations are directed against Iraq. But Qatar has diplomatic relations (restored after the Gulf war of 1991) with Baghdad, so it is expected to criticise in public any plans to attack Iraq. The Gulf monarchy, which, like the others in the region, fears that an attack on Iraq will destabilise the area, hopes that Washington’s promise of protection in return for the use of military bases, coupled with public condemnation of the attack, will shield it from the public’s fury. Another hope -which could also turn out to be vain -that Qatar shares with the other Gulf monarchies is that the much-publicised collection of donations for the Palestinian people and condemnation of Israel will contain any popular, particularly Islamic, indignation that military cooperation with the US generates.

Oman must certainly share these fears and hopes as it increases its military cooperation with the US, which is funding the construction of a new airbase in al-Musna’h, 120 kilometres (about 75 miles) west of the capital, Muscat. USAID is paying the Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) $150 million to meet the construction costs. But the airbase will be too large when it is finished for the needs of RAFO’s planes, and is clearly designed to be used by the much larger American aircraft. To take one example, the runway will be 4.3 kilometres long, making it one of the few strips in the Middle East suitable for B-52 bombers. Officials at the US embassy in Muscat refuse to answer questions from journalists seeking to clarify this situation. Oman was part of the Gulf War coalition, and has since been known to host military exercises by western powers linked to the war against Iraq. Last October, for instance, the US sent thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen to Oman for manoeuvres which “now look like a practice run for a military campaign against Iraq,” as one journalist put it recently.

Kuwait, not surprisingly, has hosted a substantial US military presence since the second Gulf war (1991). The monarchy owes its existence to the US, which organised the coalition forces that expelled Iraqi troops, and has since protected it. The US garrison there is reportedly being enlarged, this time as part of the US-planned war against Iraq. Bahrain, which was also part of the Gulf war coalition, has been the US Fifth Fleet’s home base for a long time.

The UAE is the only Gulf monarchy that has no established US military presence on its territory. Nevertheless, it too is a close ally and has defence cooperation agreements with the US, Britain and France. US reconnaissance aircraft and refuelling tankers routinely use airbases in Abu Dhabi. The UAE was also part of the Gulf war coalition.

Washington’s efforts to expand its military presence and to build staging-posts are not confined to the Gulf region or to the war against Iraq or Afghanistan. They cover the entire Muslim world and are closely linked to the US-led ‘war on terrorism’. The expansion of the US’s military presence in Central Asia – and indeed elsewhere, such as Bosnia, for instance–is closely related to its Middle East base-building. Initially US forces were dispatched to those Central Asian countries that have common borders with Afghanistan, and their presence there seemed to be temporary. Since the latest Afghan war, however, the US has acquired military bases in the region and has signed military cooperation agreements with its leaders. Even in Kosova, the US is reportedly enlarging Camp Bondsteel to make it useable as a staging-post for aircraft.

The idea behind the building of staging-posts throughout the Muslim world is to guard against the possibility of Muslim allies withdrawing permission to use bases in their countries. Even Turkey, a close US ally and a member of NATO, is expressing anxiety about the continued use of its Incirlik base by US forces to bomb Iraqi territory. Washington can no longer take it for granted that Ankara will allow it to use the base if it decides to attack Iraq. But although the end-result will be the effective military siege and occupation of Muslim countries, the absolute monarchies in the Gulf and the dictators that rule the Central Asian states are cooperating with Washington’s plans instead of resisting them.

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