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Troops to Test New Headquarters

The U.S. military command responsible for operations in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf will send 600 personnel from its base in Tampa to a multibillion-dollar air base in Qatar in November to test a headquarters that could be used to oversee a war against Iraq, defense officials said yesterday.

Although officials billed the move as part of a one-week biennial exercise, they said it will be led by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the chief of Central Command, and acknowledged that shifting at least some operations and personnel from Florida to Qatar on a permanent basis was under consideration.

The decision, which comes as the Bush administration is stepping up plans for a possible war aimed at toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, illustrates the emergence of Qatar as a key strategic U.S. ally in the Gulf. It comes in a period in which relations with Saudi Arabia, where the United States already has a modern military command center, have been under severe strain. The headquarters will be established at Al Udeid Air Base near Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the U.S. military presence has been rapidly expanding in recent months.

The base has a 15,000-foot runway, long enough for the heaviest U.S. cargo aircraft and bombers to take off fully loaded, and the Pentagon has begun construction of a sophisticated air operations center at the site that could supplant or replace an existing facility at Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Since the war on terrorism began last fall, U.S. authorities have been installing computer monitors, communications gear, intelligence equipment and other assets at the base. In recent months, the number of U.S. warplanes and personnel at the base has swelled, with about 2,000 troops now populating a large military tent city in the desert, according to one official.

The November deployment to Qatar, which could involve an additional 400 support personnel, bringing the total number of U.S. forces involved to about 1,000, follows controversy regarding a decision by Franks and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to keep Central Command headquarters in Tampa during the war in Afghanistan. Franks decided to remain in Tampa, defense officials said, because he and Rumsfeld thought a move would be disruptive during the opening stages of the war and believed that Saudi Arabia would have objected to stationing the headquarters at Prince Sultan. But many Air Force and Army commanders involved in Afghanistan complained about the arrangement and indicated that they thought Franks should have moved to the region so the Central Command staff would have been in roughly the same time zone as military commanders in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics.They noted that an earlier Central Command leader, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, moved from Tampa to a headquarters in Riyadh shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Schwarzkopf commanded the 1991 Persian Gulf War from the Riyadh headquarters.

The Central Command's announcement came as Qatar's foreign minister, Hamad Bin Jasim Thani, is in Washington meeting with administration officials and members of Congress. Hamad is scheduled to testify in closed session today before the House International Relations Committee and will meet with Pentagon officials on Friday. Earlier this year, the Qataris made it clear that they would not place restrictions on the use of facilities by U.S. commanders prosecuting the war on terrorism, one senior defense official said.

While Saudi Arabia allowed the United States to use its operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base during the war in Afghanistan, relations between the two countries have frayed since last Sept. 11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers who committed the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were of Saudi origin. Saudi Arabia has since expressed doubt about the administration's desire to take military action against Iraq, and Saudi officials have said privately they think it is unlikely that Saudi military facilities, including Prince Sultan, would be made available for an attack against Iraq. Publicly, they have challenged the administration's handling of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Defense officials and senior officers said no decision has been made on whether to leave the Central Command personnel in place in Qatar or to permanently move Franks to the base. Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a Central Command spokesman, said only that Franks "travels frequently, and it's not unusual when an exercise is conducted for him to participate in the exercise." A senior Pentagon official, however, said that stationing Franks in Qatar at some point after the exercise is a possibility. In the event of war against Iraq, there is still no certainty that Franks would use Qatar as his regional headquarters, according to one general officer, who said military planners continue to hold open the possibility of running the war out of Saudi Arabia. "Using Qatar as a headquarters is still plan B," the officer said. "The preference is still to try to work with the Saudis rather than cut ties and leave." One Republican House staff member said the exercise in Qatar takes on added importance with the Bush administration contemplating military action against Iraq. "If there's a war, they're going to have to send a headquarters element forward," the staffer said. "So they should exercise it -- it makes sense to me." The staffer, who recently returned from the Middle East, said Qatar is becoming an increasingly important U.S. ally in the Gulf and could ultimately replace Saudi Arabia as the most important host for U.S. air operations, particularly now that the Air Force is constructing another Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base.

The Air Force completed work in the summer of 2001 on its first operations center in the region at Prince Sultan in Saudi Arabia but began replicating the massive computer center this year in Qatar. The move came as a hedge against an attack on the facility in Saudi Arabia or any attempt by Saudi authorities to deny the United States access to it, officials said. "I think there are more American forces on the ground in Qatar than there are in Saudi Arabia -- if not, then it's close," the GOP aide said. "Qatar has a very small population, principally expatriates, and it's a little fragile. But so are a lot of other places around there. We really like them, as far as I can tell, and they seem to like us. And they're doing all the right things." One Democratic staff member who follows military issues said he hoped the Central Command deployment to Qatar was not the first step toward moving the entire Central Command headquarters to the Gulf. "I don't think they'd be doing anything that provocative the day before [President] Bush addresses the United Nations, but you never know with this crowd," the staffer said.

In another development, a Marine official said the Marines plan later this month to send a specialized unit that detects nuclear, chemical and biological attacks to Kuwait. The move reflects the concern of military planners that the most vulnerable point of any campaign against Hussein would be the initial assembly of U.S. troops along Iraq's borders.


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