America's armed forces are planning to send 600 of their personnel to Qatar to test a headquarters that could be used to control and co-ordinate an invasion of Iraq.
In what has been interpreted as an important development in preparations for a possible attack, the members of the US Central Command (CentCom) will leave for the Gulf state in November. The group will be led by General Tommy Franks, the man who would oversee any military strike against Iraq.
While the Pentagon has said this week that the personnel will take part in an exercise, officials admit that consideration is also being given to sending some of the staff to Qatar permanently. Lieutenant Nick Balice, a spokesman for CentCom, said: "General Franks travels frequently and it's not unusual when an exercise is conducted for him to participate in the exercise."
The headquarters in Qatar would be established at the multimillion-dollar Al-Udeid air base near Doha, the capital. In recent months, the number of US military personnel has been increased at the base, which is equipped with a 15,000ft runway capable of handling the heaviest American cargo aircraft and bombers. Washington also keeps tanks, armoured vehicles and other equipment, sufficient to equip a brigade, in 27 warehouses near the base.
Since President George Bush launched his "war on terrorism" last year, the Pentagon has also been steadily building its communications, computing and intelligence-gathering equipment at Al-Udeid. Officials say that a tent city of about 2,000 military personnel is now spread across the desert. Estimates suggest the expansion would allow the base to accommodate up to 10,000 troops and 120 aircraft.
Qatar, which is considered one of America's most important allies in the region, is increasingly seen as the best place for operational headquarters for a strike against Iraq, particularly since Saudi Arabia seems very unlikely to agree to be used as the launch pad. While some military planners are said to be holding out for Saudi Arabia to change its mind, Qatar is being lined up as "Option B". One officer told The Washington Post: "The preference is still to try and work with the Saudis rather than cut ties and leave."
News of the CentCom deployment came as Qatar's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, was in Washington to meet members of the Bush administration and Congress. Yesterday, Sheikh Hamad was due to testify before a closed session of the House International Relations Committee.
Given Saudi Arabia's reluctance to allow the US to use its Prince Sultan air base near Riyadh to launch an attack against Saddam Hussein, America's relationship with Qatar is seen as increasingly important. One unnamed Bush administration official quoted yesterday said that Qatar had made plain this year that it would not "place restrictions" on the use of facilities by America to take on terrorism.
That position is far from clear, though. Yesterday, an unnamed senior Qatari official told Reuters: "We do not oppose a lasting American military presence on our soil for deterrence and defence purposes, but we do not want our soil to be used against brotherly Iraq or any other Arab or Muslim country." Answering questions after a presentation at the Brookings Institution think-tank, the Foreign Minister said that the United States had not asked Qatar to use Al-Udeid for a strike on Iraq. He declined to say whether Qatar would agree to such a request. "If they ask us, we will consider it carefully," he said.
Sheikh Hamad also said the United Nations must play a big role in any decision to oust President Saddam. "We have to work, all of us, to make an effort with the United Nations to say exactly what they want with Iraq," he said.
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