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In the Arabian Desert, U.S. Troops Settle In

Temporary Deployment Has Permanent Feel

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 3, 2001; Page A01

PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, Saudi Arabia -- The U.S. Air Force Combat Fire Dawgs were on a roll, but no one on the team took the lead for granted. There may still be patrols in the skies over southern Iraq, but the focus on this mild April night was to coax a few more runs across home plate at a sandy, floodlit softball diamond.

"Line drives, base hits," the teammates shouted at one another. Their T-shirts were hand-decorated with brands of beer they cannot drink in this conservative Muslim monarchy, and a gun-mounted Humvee scouted for trouble in the desert beyond.

Behind them, a game of touch football was underway. Behind that, the beach volleyball pit was full. Behind that, pick-up basketball was in full swing. Over by the pool, a rare venue for mixed-sex public bathing in the Saudi kingdom, the deejay at the Oasis Lounge had attracted only a few patrons for country and western night, although one couple was into a brisk two-step.

A decade after the Persian Gulf War ended with Iraq's withdrawal from neighboring Kuwait, the U.S. military has settled in for the long haul in the Persian Gulf. U.S. warships, fighter planes and Patriot missile batteries, and the more than 10,000 troops who run them, have become the oil-heavy region's chief guardians. Building on alliances nurtured through the 1980s and cemented during the 1991 war, the United States has military equipment and personnel in six of the eight countries on the gulf. Iraq and Iran are the exceptions -- and the main reasons the U.S. forces are here.

The division of labor has put cargo planes in sleepy Oman, fighters in Kuwait, an armored brigade in Qatar, the Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain, airborne refueling tankers in the United Arab Emirates and a high-tech panoply of reconnaissance jets and fighters here to keep an eye and ear on President Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi military.

It is a network that increasingly has the look and feel of a permanent presence, even though local officials and U.S. commanders insist that much of it has been "forward deployed" only temporarily, to deter another possible Iraqi move against the region and to police U.S.-imposed restrictions on military movement in a "no-fly" zone covering the southern third of the country.

But the deployment is not a fully comfortable fit, particularly at this base near Al Kharj, 60 miles southeast of Riyadh, in an arid stretch of central Saudi Arabia. The Americans fly and play in the heartland of a nation where more than a few resent the presence of a powerful non-Muslim force on a peninsula that the prophet Muhammad's followers fought 1,400 years ago to cleanse of outside influence.

Islamic militants such as the Saudi-born fugitive Osama bin Laden have made the U.S. presence here a rallying cry, which U.S. officers say has made even members of the Saudi royal family skittish about embracing the operation too openly. Speaking in Iran this week, the Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef, discounted the more than 3,500 U.S. personnel on the base, saying that Saudi Arabia allows "some flights" from its territory to help the United Nations.

"They don't want to be seen publicly as too supportive of the supporters of Israel," said Brig. Gen. Gary R. Dylewski, commander of the Joint Task Force Southwest Asia, the Saudi-based command that coordinates much of the surveillance of southern Iraq. "They want as low a profile as possible."

This is a difficult aim for a diverse force of F-15s, AWACS, odd-shaped U-2 photo reconnaissance planes and other aircraft making more than 1,000 flights a month, circling through northern Saudi Arabia and refueling in the air to carry out four- and five-hour missions.

The U.S. flag is not flown outside the base, a protocol followed because this is still technically a coalition effort including British, French and Saudis, but the policy also avoids advertising the dominant partner's presence. Base entrances are "no salute" zones, so officers cannot be identified for sniping. Sightseeing trips in the country are allowed to only two or three designated sites, well-scouted by security. No one leaves the base in uniform.

With memories acute of a 1996 bombing in Dhahran that killed 19 U.S. servicemen, security is severe, from a "shred everything" policy meant to keep local contract workers from gathering information about the base to an underlying suspicion of even Saudi officers. After the Dhahran bombing, U.S. troops deployed there and in Riyadh were moved to this more remote site, which is under heavily armed patrol and electronic surveillance and is itself inside a much larger, also tightly secured, 80-square-mile base of the Royal Saudi Air Force.

Inside the U.S.-policed portion, an intense military mission has evolved side by side with such a relaxed social scene that psychiatric officials regard it as among the healthiest settings under U.S. command -- alcohol-free, and without evidence of combat-level stress.

Previously housed in tents for their 90-day tours in the desert, the Air Force and Army personnel here live in two-story, U.S.-built dormitories in a complex where off-duty service members can snack on Baskin-Robbins ice cream, shop for duty-free electronics and videos at a base exchange, browse the Internet and e-mail family from a 60-terminal computer room, or buy trinkets from a local gold merchant.

There is a cavernous gym and a well-appointed chapel, perhaps the only one in a country where group worship of any religion other than Islam is typically punished by deportation.

There are five feature films a day -- prints are destroyed at the end of each film's run to assure Saudi censors they will not reach the black market -- and rowdy rounds of "Combat Bingo" on Tuesday night. There are baskets of condoms in the clinic and souvenir T-shirts poking fun at the environment, including a Hard Rock Cafe logo with a "Closed for Prayer" sign stamped across it.

American playfulness set to the roar of a fighter plane. Even the pilots say it is easy to forget this is serious business.

'This Is for Real'

Lt. Col. Chip Shepherd fired the afterburners on his F-15, held the plane close to the ground down most of the runway, then pulled into a steep "combat takeoff." As much as 4 Gs of force pressed against him, he recounted, but the pitch of the ascent was necessary to assure he would be high enough, before leaving the controlled boundaries of the base, to avoid any effort to shoot him down with a shoulder-launched missile or other portable weapon carted to the perimeter.

Larger planes, without the power of fighter jets, spiral upward for the same reason during their takeoffs. The enemy may be Iraq. But operations here are organized with the knowledge that, since the end of the Gulf War, U.S. pilots have flown more than 200,000 sorties from this Saudi base without a scratch, while 22 servicemen have died on Saudi soil. Nineteen of those died in the Dhahran bombing, three in a traffic accident.

It was mid-March when Shepherd left on the first mission of his 90-day stay here, and if the angle of his ascent was not a reminder of the risks, then he was soon to get another. After coursing an hour or so northward across the unbroken and featureless Saudi desertscape, he entered Iraqi airspace with other members of the 493rd Fighter Squadron.

Off his wing, Iraqi antiaircraft fire blossomed, flowers of light during a post-midnight expedition. He said he was slow to realize he was under attack for the first time.

"It struck me: This is for real, this is really it," he said.

In the decade since the Gulf War ended, the sight of antiaircraft fire and exploding surface-to-air missiles have become part of the routine for pilots enforcing the no-fly zone. And particularly since December 1998, when Iraqi air defense batteries began more aggressively trying to shoot down U.S. or British planes, coalition forces have been shooting back -- more than 200 times since early 1999. The strikes have ranged from shots taken when Iraqi radars illuminate coalition jets to coordinated, multi-plane attacks. In February, for example, U.S. military officials targeted an upgraded and more threatening Iraqi radar and communications center.

Iraq has repeatedly condemned the airstrikes and the overflights as illegal and in no way grounded in U.N. resolutions. Baghdad says coalition bombs have in the past 2 1/2 years killed more than 300 people, including many civilians.

In the view of U.S. commanders and pilots here, the exchange of fire over southern Iraq is proof of Hussein's bad intentions and justifies what they say is more than just policing his country. If the only aim was to ensure that Iraqi jets stayed north of the designated 33rd parallel, Dylewski said, the pace and design of the sorties would look much different from the near daily combinations of fighters, reconnaissance jets and tankers that ply the air over Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq itself, a dozen or more at a time.

Limited Iraqi Response

Iraqi pilots on occasion buzz across the line, which is designated in theory to make sure Hussein's air force cannot be used against southern Iraq's restive Shiite population or to threaten Kuwait. A similar zone has been created in the north to oversee Iraq's Kurdish regions, leaving Baghdad with only the middle portion of the country, about 108 miles from north to south, under full sovereignty.

But the Iraqi jets never arrive in large numbers and never stay long. After a decade of U.N. sanctions that have limited Iraq's access to spare parts, Dylewski said, its air force's active combat fleet may number as few as 50 planes. And the pilots are restricted to only a few training flights a month around Baghdad, hardly a regimen to stay in fighting shape. The last air-to-air encounter between coalition and Iraqi aircraft was in 1992.

In fact, despite the concerns expressed in February about the increasing accuracy of Iraqi anti-aircraft fire, pilots here agreed that the risk they face over Iraq is, in Shepherd's words, "slim to none."

From the U.S. perspective, the current state of affairs is serving other ends. High on the list is surveillance, to ensure Iraq abides by U.N. demands that it not strengthen military forces in the south and to provide information on what the Iraqi government is more broadly attempting, even outside the no-fly areas.

"If it is only no-fly zone enforcement, you don't need to be so aggressive," said Brig. Gen. Allen G. Peck, commander of the 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, the designation given to the fleet of planes and people deployed here, in Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

"We get a lot of benefit by enforcing the way we do," he said. "We benefit from an up-close and personal look at what he [Hussein] is doing."

On a given day, U.S. troops here might send up a "package" that includes the U-2 reconnaissance craft snapping pictures from on high, the AWACS scanning for Iraqi planes, the RC-135 eavesdropping on Iraq's airwaves, a Marine Prowler jamming the other country's radars, F-15s and F-16s providing protection and tankers flying set routes over northern Saudi Arabia to keep everyone in motion. If an attack has been planned for the day, the planes come from Kuwait or a gulf-based aircraft carrier; under an agreement with the Saudis, the planes leaving here are equipped only with defensive weapons in case they are attacked by another plane or targeted by ground-based radar.

The public equations are simple: If Hussein's gunners stop shooting, so, say base officials, will the U.S. and British fighters. If Iraq complies with U.N. resolutions, then the Gulf War's 10-year endgame, and the justification for the dozens of U.S. warplanes still circling the Arabian peninsula, might end.

Changes in Attitudes

The underlying politics are broader: containment aimed at Iraq and Iran. As one Western diplomat in Saudi Arabia said, "The United States hasn't tried to overthrow any governments here. Iraq sure has. The United States hasn't tried to destabilize. . . . Iran sure has."

Allied gulf countries have begun reorganizing their own defenses, in close consultation with Western governments that have competed for the estimated $50 billion in weapons sales made in the region over the last 10 years. A recently signed pact among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, could, for example, put a combined force of several hundred fighters at the disposal of any threatened country once current purchases are completed. Among the sales: 80 F-16s to the United Arab Emirates for $6.8 billion.

But at the same time, for U.S. commanders and planners in the region, "the relationship is getting more profound" between the United States and the gulf countries that only 30 years ago targeted the United States with an oil embargo, said Dylewski.

"Our attitude is changing from a temporary attitude to a long-term attitude. For the last 10 years . . . we've been in a put up a tent mindset. We are changing that," he said. "We don't want to control the resources of the region. We want to make sure they are available uninterrupted to the rest of the world."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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