A U.S. delegation will explore the possibility of letting American forces use military bases in Somalia, Oman and Kenya but not Saudi Arabia, Pentagon and State Department spokesmen maintained yesterday.
The Washington Post and The Washington Star, after talking with a high-ranking administration official about the delegation's trip to Saudi Arabia, published articles yesterday saying that the Saudis would be approached about temporary use of their bases during some future crisis, through not the current Iranian one.
The Saudi government has strongly opposed the idea of serving as a launching pad for U.S. combat operations or any other highly visible American military presence. Administration officials insisted, in statements that also may have been designed to reassure Saudi Arabia, that no base rights are being sought there.
"There are no discussions about facilities in Saudi Arabia and there are no plans in that regard," State Department spokesman Tom Reston said in discussing the agenda of the U.S. delegation, which flew to Saudi Arabia on Monday.
The delegation is headed by Reginald Bartholomew, State's director of politics-military affairs, and Robert J. Murray, an assistant secretary of defense for the Near East.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Thomas B. Ross said the group will visit Oman, Somalia and Kenya "for exploratory talks . . . about access to existing facilities for support of our Indian Ocean deployments."
A State Department official said the delegation also will discuss using another Horn of Africa port at Djibouti, but will not visit there.
The Pentagon's International Secirity Affairs office has conducted studies recently on how U.S. forces could use Saudi bases, government officials confirmed yesterday, but the findings will not be discussed during the delegation's visit to Saudi Arabia.
Instead, they said, the Saudi discussions will focus on military developments in the area, including the Soviets' recent shipment of arms to North Yemen. The United States had been sending arms to North Yemen, with the Saudis' financial support, in an effort to counter the Marxist government of South Yemen.
There was no dispute yesterday by administration officials that the delegation's trip represents part of President Carter's effort to increase U.S. military capabilities in the Mideast and Persian Gulf.
The Somalian port of Berbera was developed by the Soviets as a base for its ships in the Indian Ocean. Now that the Somalians have ousted the Soviets, it is possible that U.S. Navy ships deployed to the Indian Ocean area will use those facilities.
Since there are tensions between Somalia and Kenya, one reading yesterday of the visit to Kenya was as an effort to reassure the Kenyan government that the United States does not plan to start a big flow of arms to Somalia.
Besides Berbera, Somalia's Indian Ocean port of Mogadishu and Kenya's air and ship facilities at Mombasa were cited by defense officials as candidates for expanded use by U.S. Navy ships and P3 patrol aircraft.
As for Oman, strategically located at the entrance to the Persian Gulf -- the seaway for oil exports from Iran and Saudi Arabia -- the Pentagon said the Navy's P3s had been refueling in that country since 1977. A wider use of Oman by the U.S. military is expected to be explored by the State-Pentagon team.
Although planners of the Rapid Deployment Force, designed to rush to distant places in a ready-to-fight posture, are looking for landing places near the Persian Gulf, administration officials said this is not the main objective of the exploratory talks just launched.
U.S. officials said they want to find facilities in the Indian Ocean area for the expanded U.S. air and sea forces to be deployed there between now and 1983 when the Rapid Deployment Force will be ready.