U.S. to Avoid Strikes From Saudi BasesBy Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 1998; Page A01
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 8Confronted by Saudi Arabia's reluctance to back airstrikes against Iraq, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said today that the United States would avoid flying strike aircraft out of Saudi territory in the event military action is necessary but would expect to use U.S. support aircraft based in this desert kingdom.
The decision not to press for greater cooperation from America's biggest, richest ally in the Persian Gulf region came after Saudi authorities recently indicated their aversion to a U.S. attack on Iraq unless it was aimed at eliminating its leader, Saddam Hussein.
Cohen said the United States has enough bombers and fighter jets situated in neighboring Gulf states, on aircraft carriers and on an Indian Ocean island to carry out an assault on Iraq. But U.S. officials also had hoped to stage some airstrikes from Saudi territory. Saudi Arabia hosts nearly one-third of the U.S. aircraft currently in the region and controls a large portion of the available airspace and airfields near Iraq.
Cohen disclosed the U.S. decision while en route to the Gulf states for several days of talks with Arab leaders about American battle plans. Asked if he would be seeking approval to use Saudi bases for offensive military operations, Cohen said, "We have not made such a request, and . . . it is not my intent to make such a request because we don't think it's necessary."
U.S. sources said terms of the arrangement with the Saudis were discussed in a telephone conversation Saturday between President Clinton and Saudi King Fahd. Upon landing in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah this evening, Cohen went into a 20-minute meeting with Fahd, then held talks with Prince Sultan, the defense minister, who earlier in the day was quoted reiterating his government's reservations about military action aimed at Iraq.
"As you know, we do not favor a strike against Iraq as a people and as a nation," Sultan told reporters, according to the official SPA news agency. At the same time, the minister called on Saddam Hussein to abide by the U.N. resolutions imposed at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War requiring unconditional access by international inspectors to suspected weapons sites.
Cohen said he still expects the Saudis to allow use of their territory for support missions, which aides said would include refueling, radar-jamming and AWACS air traffic control aircraft. The Saudis "are hosting some of the support aircraft. . . . We would hope that would continue," the secretary said.
About 50 strike aircraft and another 50 military support planes are usually housed at Prince Sultan Air Base, a remote site south of Riyadh, to enforce a ban on Iraqi military flights over southern Iraq imposed at the end of the Gulf War. The use of these planes in an air assault would have afforded additional flexibility in what is sure to be a complex, fast-paced operation.
But anticipating that strike missions from Saudi Arabia might be ruled out for political reasons, the Pentagon has amassed a considerable amount of firepower elsewhere in the region since November when the current crisis erupted over U.N. weapons inspections. The United States has F-117 stealth aircraft and A-10 fighter jets at Kuwait's Jabir Air Base, B-1 bombers and F-16 and F-15 fighter jets at Bahrain's Sheik Isa Airfield, F-14 and F-18 fighter jets on two carriers, cruise missiles on a number of other ships and B-52 bombers on the British island of Diego Garcia. A third U.S. carrier that had been in the Gulf since October, the USS Nimitz, departed today for Norfolk, Va., after last week's arrival of its replacement, the USS Independence.
Cohen also left open the possibility that some of the F-15s and F-16s now in Saudi Arabia would be moved to other Gulf states for use in the operation. "I don't think that determination has been made," he said, adding that he would be discussing the option with the Saudis.
In addition to the operational advantages that would have come from attacking from Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials had looked for a diplomatic boost. Permission to use Saudi territory would have sent a powerful signal of allied unity in the face of Iraqi efforts to split the international coalition that fought the Gulf War. Instead, the United States can count on tangible Gulf backing for offensive operations from only two tiny emirates -- Kuwait and Bahrain.
"If we had pushed, the Saudis most likely would have agreed, but it would have been hard for them to say yes," a senior defense official said, explaining the decision to structure a military operation that avoided having to ask the question.
Cohen's visit comes a week after Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright held an inconclusive seven hours of talks in this country with Crown Prince Abdullah, who has taken on much of the authority of his ailing half-brother, the king. Albright elicited only ambiguous responses when she sought assurances about the kind of support the Saudis would provide during a military operation against Iraq, according to U.S. officials.
One reason the Saudi government is reluctant to assume a role in airstrikes, according to area specialists, is its sensitivity to the view, widely held in the Arab world, that the United States already has excessively penalized the Iraqi people.
Even so, the Saudis have told U.S. and other Western officials that they would have no problem with using force against Iraq as long as any attack were not merely symbolic but really hurt Saddam Hussein, whom they regard as a menace. But they worry that even the substantial air campaign being planned by the United States and Britain is not likely to finish off the Iraqi dictator, leaving him vengeful toward any Gulf states that support the action.
Asked about these concerns, Cohen said he would reassure the Saudis that any air attack would seriously damage Iraq's ability to make or deliver weapons of mass destruction, and might be followed by a tightening of existing sanctions "in some respects."
But he noted the improbability of removing Saddam Hussein with the assault, adding: "He's very difficult to locate, in terms of his forces. We have a policy against assassinations."
Cohen plans to spend the next three days in the Gulf region, discussing military plans and various diplomatic initiatives involving Iraq with leaders of Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Saudi Arabia.
To reinforce the point that the current U.S. approach to Iraq has strong bipartisan backing in Congress, Cohen has brought along two senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which he formerly served as a Republican member from Maine -- Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.).
Before departing Germany today, where he attended a weekend conference on European strategic issues, Cohen conferred with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai for about 75 minutes. Cohen said the discussion centered on "various types of requests" that Israel has made for American security assistance, but declined to elaborate.
Many Israelis fear that a U.S. attack on Iraq could trigger some kind of Iraqi retaliation against them.
Cohen said he and Mordechai agreed to stay in "close consultation" throughout the current crisis.
Meanwhile, Albright said the United States' final decision whether to attack Iraq would probably be made "in weeks."
"I've been asked whether it's days or weeks or months," Albright said on the CBS television program "Face the Nation."
"It's not days, and it's not months. So it's in the weeks category. We want to make sure that we have explored all the diplomatic options," Albright said.
She would not say whether Saddam Hussein would be targeted personally in bombing runs, but she added that, in general, "we look forward to dealing with the post-Saddam regime."
Albright and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger voiced confidence that the Saudis would go along with military strikes as a last resort.
"I have confidence and trust that the Saudi government will support us if force is necessary," she said, citing her talks last week with Crown Prince Abdullah.
Berger, on the ABC's "This Week," said he, too, is confident of getting "the cooperation that we need if military action is necessary."
Staff writer David Brown in Washington contributed to this report.
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