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U.S. may shift to Persian Gulf air bases

Turkish contractors grade a parking ramp for U.S. aircrafts at Balad air base, 70 kilometers (44 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, March 1, 2006. The Bush administration declines to say it won't seek to keep bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. military is spending almost $1 billion this year for base construction in Iraq alone. The base at Balad, for example, has been expanded to host F-16 fighter and C-130 transport squadrons. (AP Photo /Charles J. Hanley, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates --The U.S. military is preparing for the day when air power from bases along the Persian Gulf will help ensure that friendly governments in Iraq and Afghanistan survive without American ground troops, a senior U.S. general said.

"We'll be in the region for the foreseeable future," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Allen G. Peck, deputy air commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region. "Our intention would be to stay as long as the host nations will have us."

Agreements have been struck recently with Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates for long-term use of their bases. Already home to U.S. and allied fighter, transport and observation planes, the bases will become more critical if plans proceed to gradually withdraw ground forces from Iraq.

A capable Iraqi air force is years away and Iraqi infantry need the back-up and surveillance provided by U.S. warplanes, Peck said. The bases also could help rush soldiers into Iraq in a crisis. The Pentagon has been keeping thousands of troops in reserve in Kuwait, on Iraq's southern border.

Not everyone is convinced.

The Bush administration declines to say it won't seek to keep bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. military is spending almost $1 billion this year for base construction in Iraq alone. The base at Balad, for example, has been expanded to host F-16 fighter and C-130 transport squadrons.

A former Iraq intelligence chief for the State Department, Wayne White, said he believes one of the administration's unstated pre-invasion goals was to secure permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq after overseeing the installation of a pro-American government.

Peck, however, said he knew of no current U.S. plans to maintain permanent air bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because of the Iraqi insurgency, experts say bases in the Persian Gulf nations are a better option given the long relationships Washington has had with them.

But there are risks even in those countries, where many people harbor suspicions of U.S. policy. Osama bin Laden and other Islamic radicals agitate against the U.S. military presence in the Muslim world. A huge U.S. air base and headquarters in Saudi Arabia was closed before the invasion of Iraq because of fundamentalists' pressure on the Saudi government.

Indeed, American diplomats and some military officers interviewed for this article agreed to discuss the matter only on condition of anonymity, because Arab governments have asked the U.S. military not to publicize their presence.

The Air Force operates refueling, cargo and surveillance flights from large bases in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, while maintaining runway access and warehoused supplies in Oman and Saudi Arabia.

The plan Peck described would have the Air Force eventually consolidate most of its Iraq operations in the Persian Gulf bases.

Afghanistan's military also could be backed up from Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic where U.S. officials are negotiating a long-term agreement. The Kyrgyz government has requested a doubling of the base rental, Peck said.

The U.S. base at Incirlik, Turkey, could also enter into the equation. For now, the Turkish government, a NATO ally, allows the U.S. military to operate only cargo, refueling and passenger flights to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the U.S. has based fighter jets there in the past.

Peck and others caution that the shift would take years. The top U.S. officer in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, recently said plans to begin reducing the U.S. presence this year are still on track. But President Bush also has said the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq will continue at least through the end of his term in January 2009.

"The idea that we can envision a time when air power in places like the UAE becomes our main way of watching over Iraq is still a bit ahead of its time -- to put it gently," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Either way, the Pentagon is planning for the time when U.S. forces pull out of Iraq, or in case Iraq's government asks them to leave. The idea of a long-term U.S. military presence is deeply unpopular in Iraq, polls say.

White and others say the United States could eventually turn over its bases to the Iraqi military and still back up the Iraqi government with small numbers of U.S. special forces troops, along with warplanes based in nearby countries.

"If we do not support the Iraqi army with reconnaissance and airstrike capabilities, which we now rely on so heavily against the insurgents, they're not going to stand a chance," said White, now an Iraq analyst at the Middle East Institute.

O'Hanlon said the gulf bases are safer than almost anywhere in Iraq. "And everything in the region is close enough together that for most purposes the bases along the gulf should suffice."

The air bases expected to host U.S. air operations after an Iraq pullout are Al-Udeid in Qatar, Ali Al Salem in Kuwait and Al-Dhafra in the UAE. The three bases also lie just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, which the Bush administration and other nations suspect is pursuing nuclear arms.

Visits to U.S. bases in Kuwait and Qatar found signs of heavy construction of permanent housing and operations buildings.

At Al-Udeid, forward headquarters for the U.S. Central Command, construction is under way on a concrete bunker that will house a command center where American and coalition teams will direct and monitor air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. The current center is housed in a temporary building on the base.

Construction of the new operations center is being funded by the Qatari government, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The change is inevitable, some experts say.

"We will not be able to retain bases in Iraq. That will simply not be possible," White said.

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