US pulls out of Saudi Arabia to end grievance fuelling radical Islam

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The Independent US

The United States is to remove almost all of its forces from Saudi Arabia and transfer its regional air command centre from that country to the al-Udeid air base in Qatar.

The news of America's first big geopolitical dividend of the conquest of Iraq was confirmed yesterday in Riyadh by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, after talks with his Saudi opposite number, Prince Sultan. It seals a longstanding wish of Washington and the ruling Saudi monarchy and – both sides profoundly hope – will remove a grievance fuelling radical Islam in the region.

Saudi Arabia is a key American ally in the Gulf, yet the country is the guardian of Islam's holiest shrines. As many as 10,000 American military personnel have been deployed, centred on the state-of-the-art air command facility at Prince Sultan air base, 70 miles from Riyadh. But this has allowed Osama bin Laden, a Saudi himself, to justify the al-Qa'ida terror attacks as a means of freeing the country that has responsibility for Mecca and Medina from de facto colonisation by the American infidel. Members of the Saudi establishment have often been accused of covert support for his position.

Now, with the threat of Iraq eliminated, the US presence in Saudi Arabia will be scaled back so as to become largely invisible. The Combined Air Operations Centre at Prince Sultan base, which controlled the coalition air campaign before and during the recent war, will be shut down by the end of the summer, while its command function has already moved to al-Udeid. "We have switched, as of Monday," a senior Pentagon official said yesterday.

The withdrawal from Saudi Arabia is likely to be the first of many changes in the "footprint" of American forces, in the Gulf and beyond. What, if any, permanent military presence Washington intends to establish in Iraq remains to be seen. But its bases in Turkey – where the Ankara parliament refused to allow America to deploy a force to invade Iraq from the north – may be reduced.

In Europe, the Pentagon is examining the closure of some bases in Germany, or their transfer to the territory of new (and more pro-American) Nato members in central and south-eastern Europe. Changes in the American posture in Asia are also being considered.

At home, Mr Rumsfeld's popularity is outstripping even that of President George Bush. The Defence Secretary is in a strong position to push through contentious reforms at the Pentagon, putting flesh on his vision of a nimble 21st-century military, heavily reliant on special forces and high technology, in which the role of the traditional army is downgraded.

In a first move, Mr Rumsfeld demanded the resignation of the Army Secretary, Thomas White, last week. Relations had long been tense between the two, and deteriorated last year after the Defence Secretary cancelled the $11bn (£6.9bn) Crusader mobile artillery system that Mr White supported. Mr Rumsfeld has also announced far in advance the retirement of the Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, held to be another bastion of "old thinking". General Tommy Franks, the commander of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, is tipped to replace him.