Qatar may not sound like a good place to locate the U.S. nerve center for a war on Iraq. It is a Persian Gulf monarchy populated by members of the strait-laced Wahhabi branch of Islam and home to a satellite television station that beams anti-American commentary across the Arab world almost every day.
Nonetheless, this mitten-shaped spit of sand and gravel attached to the Arabian Peninsula is about to take its turn as one of the most sophisticated U.S. military outposts in the world. The U.S. Central Command plans to test a modular command-and-control complex that was shipped in by container recently from St. Petersburg, Fla. The facilities, called the Central Command Deployable Headquarters, were set up for an exercise called Internal Look scheduled to begin Monday.
The buildings are stocked with computers that can flash images of fleets and troop movements and targets all over the Middle East and let commanders talk to each other by e-mail and video telephone. Although they are portable constructions, they will remain in place "for the time being" in case they are needed to oversee a war against Iraq, U.S. military officials said . The idea is that officers here would coordinate military action among all participating forces.
The exercise will encompass forces at the U.S. Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain, U.S. forward bases in Kuwait and an air control center at Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia.
About 600 Central Command personnel are in place for the exercises. They have been joined by about 400 British troops, with another 400 expected to take part from other locations, a British Embassy official told reporters. Gen. Tommy R. Franks of the Army, the Central Command's top officer, is scheduled to arrive Friday, although his trip has been delayed before. The exercise is scheduled to end Dec. 16.
Central Command officials said they are awaiting an administration decision on whether troops will continue to man the headquarters beyond that date. On Sunday, Baghdad is supposed to detail its stores of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and programs. President Bush suspects they are substantial and has pledged to take military action and destroy President Saddam Hussein's government unless Iraq completely disarms.
"We could be here for war, or be home for Christmas," said a U.S. Army officer .
In any event, the command center in Qatar has become another jewel in a necklace of U.S. and allied bases that stretches from the Iraqi border to Oman at the other end of the peninsula.
The arrival of computers, videoconferencing and communications equipment, meeting rooms and living quarters for Internal Look completed a long-range buildup of key facilities concentrated here.
The biggest is the billion-dollar Al Udeid air base, which contains the longest runway in the Persian Gulf, giant hangars for U.S. aircraft, an 18-acre parking lot for KC-135 and KC-10 aerial refueling tankers and C-17 transport aircraft, hardened shelters for two dozen bombers, fuel tanks, underground bunkers and eight miles of roadway.
About 3,300 troops are based at Al Udeid, which sits among sand dunes in southern Qatar. Since January, the base has housed an air operations command-and-control center that reduces U.S. dependence on the Prince Sultan base in Saudi Arabia.
Like Al Udeid, Prince Sultan is equipped as an air command center. But with relations with the United States strained, Saudi Arabia has wavered on whether it could be used in a war with Iraq. Early this year, Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said he harbored no plans to move the center from Prince Sultan but added: "That does not mean I don't have plans to replicate it."
Smaller numbers of soldiers work at a tank and armored vehicle storage base known as al-Sayliyah, which is also the home of the new deployable headquarters. About 900 troops are stationed at a logistics base at the civilian airport in Doha, Qatar's capital.
On the surface, it would seem that Qatar has a lot in common with its big, skittish neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Qataris exhibit the Arab-wide distaste for U.S. backing of Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The prospect of Qatar as a base for war with Iraq is also unsettling.
"People have qualms," said Mohamed Musfir, a political scientist at Qatar University. "We like to go along with others. If the rest of the Arab world opposes the war, it will be hard for Qatar to go it alone."
Saudi Arabia and Qatar share the same religion, the same clan-based form of authoritarian government and the same dependence on fossil fuel for livelihood. But they differ in several respects, Qatari and foreign observers said. There is no visible threat to the rule of Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani over the U.S. alliance.
A local view of geopolitics favors the United States. In Qatar, Saudi Arabia is regarded as a threat, along with Iran, which sits across the Persian Gulf. By Qatari reckoning, the United States is a useful counterweight to both, local and foreign observers said.
"We are a small country and this is how small countries act," Musfir said.
"The buildup here has not been a secret," a Western diplomat said. "Qatar regards it as a sign of prestige. The Americans are welcome here. Qatar sees the American presence as a stabilizing factor. They have hungry neighbors."
Qatar, although conservative, is far less rigid than Saudi Arabia and is open to outside influences. Wahhabism here has not spilled into the fanatical brand that gave rise to Osama bin Laden, a Saudi native. In a few days, a reggae singer named Shaggy is scheduled to play here, for instance, and hotels serve alcohol -- although not during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month now nearing an end.
Women wear scarves, but not veils, and they drive cars. The government funds al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab 24-hour news station that televises news critical of Arab governments as well as the United States. Several Arab leaders, including Saudi Arabia's rulers, have pressed Qatar to close it down.
"We are on the sea and have always been in contact with other peoples, so we can't be rigid," said Abdul Hamid Ansari, a professor in Islamic law. "We try to educate ourselves to allow a diversity of opinions. Wahhabism does not have to be extreme. It is only the way it is practiced in a part of Saudi Arabia. Not here."
About 700,000 people live in Qatar, but fewer than a third are Qataris. The rest are foreign workers. Foreigners here who have experience as workers in other Gulf nations said Qataris are friendlier to them than are their neighbors.
"There is not much bullying here," said George, a waiter from Lebanon who did not give his last name. "People are kinder. They try to make you feel at home."
The other day, Mohamed Shamri, a university student, visited a friend's house where other young men, all dressed in traditional white robes, were gathered for a night of playing cards and sucking on water pipes. The fragrance of apple-flavored tobacco filled the room.
The men discussed politics gingerly and asked an American visitor why the United States does not occupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip and end strife there. But none criticized the Qatari government for the U.S. alliance.
Shamri attributed the tolerance for U.S. war plans to a combination of hypocrisy and easy-going ways. He said that Qataris ease their worries about the U.S. alliance by employing an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude.
"Men here, when they have a mistress, they put her in a second house. We call it the church -- it's kind of an insult to Christians, but also a way of saying when we are with the mistress, we are outside our moral Muslim and Qatari world."
His friends laughed.
"It's the same with the Americans," Shamri continued. "They are over there at Al Udeid, everyone knows it, but no one sees. It's off our planet. We'd rather stare at the sea."