| US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld during the visit to the Central Command headquarters at a base near Doha, Qatar. (Reuters)
Doha, April 28 (Reuters): The US said today it will reduce its military presence in the Gulf because the threat from Iraq has gone, but it has not decided whether to move a combat air command centre from Saudi Arabia.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, visiting Qatar on a week-long tour of the Gulf, said for the first time that the normal US military presence in the oil-rich area will go below pre-Iraq war levels. “The one thing we do know is that we’re going to be able to reduce the size of our forces obviously,” Rumsfeld told reporters travelling with him in the region.
US forces in the Gulf grew to over 200,000 for the Iraq war. They normally stand at about 15,000, including 5,000 aboard an aircraft carrier.
But Rumsfeld, without providing specific details, indicated they would go even lower.
“Iraq was a threat in the region. And because that threat will be gone, we also have the ability to adjust some of our arrangements,” he said.
Asked about reports that the Pentagon might move operations at a high-tech Combined Air Operations Centre from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Rumsfeld said no decisions had been made about individual deployments.
“We’ve not made final decisions with respect to how we’re going to be arranged at various bases. Gen. Franks is thinking about that with his staff,” the secretary added.
The air war which smashed Iraqi targets was run out of Prince Sultan Air Base in the Saudi desert. But Saudi Arabia refused to let US and and other attack jets launch strikes against Iraq from its bases.
The New York Times reported today that the US military was transferring its major West Asia air operations centre from Saudi Arabia to Qatar this week.
“Whether we’ll stay there (Qatar) or not — not sure,” the paper quoted Franks as saying earlier in the United Arab Emirates.
At as Sayliya military camp near Doha earlier today, Rumsfeld congratulated American military commanders of the Iraq war and fired barbs at critics of the invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.
“There were a lot of hand-wringers around, weren’t there'” he said with a grin to cheers from military headquarters troops.
Rumsfeld quoted Winston Churchill as he spoke to 1,000 American soldiers at the base from where the war was run.
Noting Churchill’s remark about the Battle of Britain against Nazi Germany that “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”, Rumsfeld said of critics of the war: “Never have so many been so wrong about so much.”
Standing beside Franks, he praised senior officers and headquarters staff, saying the war was historic despite critics who said Iraq should not have been invaded or that too few troops were used, leading to violence and looting once Saddam was toppled.
Rumsfeld and Franks said the Iraqi people were now free from oppression and that the war was run with“compassion” for the civilian population.
They did not mention that U.S.-led forces have so far not found any chemical or biological weapons. Washington said a main reason for the invasion was to eliminate weapons of mass destruction Iraq was alleged to possess. Iraq denied it had any.