Riyadh, April 29 (Reuters): The US said today it was ending military operations in Saudi Arabia and removing virtually all its forces from the kingdom by mutual agreement following the Iraq war.
Saudi Arabia said it had agreed the move with Washington but denied press reports it had asked the US to withdraw.
US military personnel in Saudi Arabia, which doubled to 10,000 during the Iraq war, have started pulling out of a desert airbase used by US planes since 1991 in their Southern Watch operation to police southern Iraq, US officials said.
Political and defence analysts said the decision had huge political implications.
The presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia gave Washington a strategic foothold in the Gulf but generated resentment among Arabs because of their proximity to Islam’s holiest sites.
The announcement, made during a tour of Gulf states by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld focused on reducing the US military in the region, followed Riyadh’s refusal to allow air strikes on Iraq by some 100 Saudi-based US aircraft.
“After the end of Southern Watch... there is no need for them to remain,” Saudi defence minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz told a joint news conference with Rumsfeld. “This does not mean that we requested them to leave.”
Rumsfeld said after talks with the prince that the “liberation of Iraq” had changed the situation in the Gulf and allowed the US to reduce its troops in the region.
“The relationship between our two countries is multi-dimensional — diplomatic, economic, as well as military-to-military,” he said.
The move effectively ends a relationship dating back 12 years when Washington used Saudi Arabia as a launch pad for the Gulf War to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait and then based warplanes at the Prince Sultan air base in the Saudi desert to police a “no-fly” zone over southern Iraq.
The presence of Western troops in the kingdom irked many Saudis, already angry with the US over its perceived bias towards Israel.
Ousting US troops from Saudi Arabia became a battle cry of Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida network, blamed by Washington for the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“There are political advantages for both. The US will have greater freedom of action, the Saudis will feel more comfortable — and neither of them will have to mention that it was a key demand of Osama bin Laden,” Tim Garden, security analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said.
“It certainly means the US is rid of a huge problem,” Charles Heyman, editor of Jane’s World Armies, said in London.
“There has been agitation for a very long time from inside Saudi Arabia. And it was one of al Qaida’s key demands as well for foreign forces to be removed from the holy ground of Saudi Arabia,” Heyman said.
After meeting US military personnel at Prince Sultan airbase, Rumsfeld praised the Saudis for being “enormously hospitable to us” during the air operations over southern Iraq.
“We look forward to exercising and training and working with them on their military,” he said.
US officials said a small number of US personnel would remain in Saudi Arabia to train Saudi soldiers and take part in joint exercises.
The defence secretary later met Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah before flying to Kuwait.