With Saudi Arabia showing deep reluctance to support a military strike on Iraq, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said Sunday that he will not seek permission to launch American fighters and bombers from Saudi territory.
Cohen’s decision not to ask for the use of more than 100 American aircraft based in Saudi Arabia - half of them combat jets - allows the United States to avoid the political embarrassment of having a request turned down by a key ally.
However, the Saudis’ stance undercuts the Clinton administration’s efforts to build political support for a punitive attack in the confrontation over U.N. inspections of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs.
Cohen said just last week that he expected “full cooperation” from allies in the Persian Gulf region. But of America’s European allies, only Britain has pledged to join an attack.
As he arrived in Saudi Arabia on Sunday night, Cohen said the commander of American forces in the region, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni of the Marines, has concluded that a “very substantial” attack could be carried out even without receiving approval to use the aircraft based in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s not my intent to make such a request,” Cohen said en route to Jidda, “because we don’t think it’s necessary.”
Whatever the necessity, however, a senior aide traveling with Cohen said the United States has concluded that Saudi Arabia would refuse any request to launch combat jets from its territory.
Saudi Arabia is one of the United States’ closest Arab allies and a major regional power. During the Persian Gulf War, Saudi Arabia provided a crucial base for the 500,000 American and allied troops that ultimately routed Iraqi forces who were occupying Kuwait in 1991.
But without the violent occupation of another Arab state as justification for an attack, and with many Arabs sympathetic to the plight of the Iraqis after seven years of economic sanctions, Saudi Arabia has found the idea of another round of strikes on Iraq unacceptable.
The developments added significance to Cohen’s order, signed Saturday, sending 42 more aircraft to the Persian Gulf. That will bring the total in the region to well above 300. Most of the new aircraft are going to Kuwait and Bahrain, two Persian Gulf countries that have signaled willingness to allow an attack from their territory.
The United States will send six more F-117 Stealth fighters to the region, doubling the number based there since the crisis with Iraq flared last fall. Another B-1 will join a pair of the heavy bombers in Bahrain. Cohen also sent six more B-52s to Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean which has a major American base, raising to 14 the number of B-52s there.
All of those - along with cruise missiles and fighters already in Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as those aboard American aircraft carriers plying the Persian Gulf - would be essential to any attack.
Cohen left open the possibility that some American aircraft based at Prince Sultan Air Base southeast of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, could provide support for fighters launched from Kuwait, Bahrain and the carriers. Those aircraft could include AWACS surveillance and communications jets as well as tankers for midair refueling.
Another official traveling in Cohen’s party said those requests remain under discussion. The senior defense official also said it is likely that Saudi Arabia would allow American bombers based elsewhere to fly over Saudi airspace, though that is not yet settled either.
Cohen also noted that Saudi Arabia would continue to allow American and a few British and French jets to patrol the “no-fly” zone over southern Iraq. “We do expect support in the region itself, and we would hope the Saudis would continue to be as helpful as they have been,” he said.
But even as Cohen arrived for talks with King Fahd and other Saudi leaders, the defense minister, Prince Sultan, declared the kingdom’s strong opposition to an attack on Iraq by the United States and Britain.
“We do not favor striking Iraq as a people and as a nation,” the prince was quoted as saying in Saudi news reports Sunday.
Cohen said the remarks do not signal a widening split between the United States and Saudi Arabia. He noted that Prince Sultan also called on Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions providing for weapons inspections and expressed support for a diplomatic resolution.
“I think most people think a military option is not the preferable option,” Cohen said. “We have said that ourselves.”
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