| US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld on a plane en route to the Gulf on Saturday. (Reuters)
Abu Dhabi, April 27 (Reuters): US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld met leaders of the oil-rich UAE today, launching a tour to thank Gulf allies for help in the Iraq war and discuss possible new American military arrangements in the region.
Rumsfeld landed in Abu Dhabi six hours late after a mechanical problem delayed his aircraft, causing him to miss a planned visit to Afghanistan today. Officials said he hoped to go to Kabul later in the week.
Rumsfeld held talks with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, UAE defence minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Lieutenant General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan, chief of the Emirates’ armed forces. He was due to fly later in the day to Qatar.
US war commander General Tommy Franks also flew in from Qatar to take part in the talks. He was scheduled to return to Qatar with Rumsfeld later in the day.
Perched at the south-eastern tip of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates are one of the strongest and richest American allies in the Gulf and provided key support for the US-led war on Iraq, launched on March 20, which ousted Saddam Hussein.
US aircraft that used a base in the UAE included the RC-135 electronic reconnaissance plane, refuelling tankers, and high altitude spy planes — the U-2 and the unmanned Global Hawk. The US navy also uses UAE bases in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.
The seven emirates in the UAE, which sit on 10 per cent of the world’s crude oil reserves and the world’s fourth largest natural gas reserves, have passed stringent laws against terrorists and money laundering schemes to finance them.
Washington is studying possible changes in its costly military presence in West Asia, the removal of Saddam being seen as potentially allowing a reduction in the US bootprint in the politically sensitive region.
US defence officials declined to predict whether the UAE, which has ordered 80 advanced US F-16 fighter jets in a deal worth billions of dollars, might benefit from any shift in US military forces in the region.
Due to security considerations, Pentagon officials gave no advance indication of whether the secretary would visit Iraq itself, where more than 130,000 US troops are now deployed, and would not name other stops on the trip. But Rumsfeld told reporters that he was anxious not only to meet American troops at regional bases but to thank Gulf allies and discuss the future US military.