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Rebuilding Iraq

Military would rapidly demobilize after war, US says

By John Donnelly, Globe Staff and Bryan Bender, Globe Correspondent, 2/28/2003

WASHINGTON - Following a possible war with Iraq, the Bush administration plans to significantly scale back US military forces in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and at least four other Mideast countries that no longer would need protection from President Saddam Hussein's regime, senior US officials say.

Part of the motivation of reductions to levels preceding the 1991 Gulf War, according to US officials, is also the political benefit of easing tensions in the countries, especially Saudi Arabia, where many people strenuously object to the presence of US troops on their soil.

The pullback could be to ''peacetime'' levels of several thousand not seen since 1984, when the United States mobilized troops during an escalation in the Iran-Iraq war, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The buildup escalated in 1988 during the ''Tanker War'' to protect Kuwaiti shipping and then increased to more than a half-million soldiers during the Gulf War.

Since then, the number of US forces in the region has averaged at least in the tens of thousands, culminating with the current build-up that has topped 200,000.

Other administration officials stressed that no decisions have been made on what a postwar US military presence would look like, saying that the disposition of American forces cannot be determined until after the Iraq crisis and military planners can assess the region's security needs.

''We need to fulfill the military tasks in Iraq first,'' one senior administration official said in an interview, including locating and destroying weapons of mass destruction, maintaining internal and border security, dealing with Iraq's suspected terrorist infrastructure, as well as conducting a variety of civil and military tasks. ''But once they are fulfilled, we will leave, en masse or in increments.''

Even the large contingent of US soldiers that would be needed in Iraq to provide security and relief aid after Hussein's removal probably would be temporary, the officials said. The only permanent installation is likely to be in Bahrain, which has served as a Navy outpost since World War II. ''It's the anti-MacArthur, antiviceroy concept,'' the senior official said, referring to the negative effects of long-term occupation.

But the US military presence elsewhere in the region would be significantly reduced in short order under the plans.

''We're going to be mostly out of Saudi Arabia,'' said one senior State Department official. ''It's going to be a completely different footprint. We're planning on substantially reducing forces almost everywhere in the region except for Iraq, and even in Iraq, we do not plan to set up long-term bases.''

The administration officials and analysts said that the expected move out of the countries - which also include Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and, to a lesser extent, Turkey - should improve US relationships with governments regionwide.

''It's very important to make it clear to people the US presence is there only when they need it,'' said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ''You don't have to go far back in history to find Iraq is the catalyst'' for the major US military presence. ''If you can change that catalyst, you can make changes quickly. You don't need the same presence if you win in Iraq as you did to contain it.''

The reductions would have the biggest impact on Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda and a Saudi native, has demanded for a decade that the United States remove its ''infidel'' troops from Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites in Islam, at Mecca and Medina.

The State Department official said a troop pullback should not be viewed as a reaction to bin Laden's demands but seen as a pragmatic follow-up to new realities of a more secure Middle East. Hussein, the official said, has invaded Kuwait and Iran, fired Scud missiles during the Gulf War at Saudi Arabia and Israel, and gassed his own people.

But, the official said, removing the US troops ''is clearly what the countries themselves are asking for.'' The New York Times reported this month that Saudi officials would like the United States to remove its troops following a war with Iraq. US officials said that while Saudi officials may be planning such a move, they intend to preempt any such plan by unilaterally pulling back regionwide, not just in Saudi Arabia.

An adviser to the Saudi government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the main benefit for the Saudis would be a significant reduction in internal strife over the presence of US troops. The adviser also said the Saudis were eager to stop footing a bill of about $1 billion annually for the United States to patrol the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

A former senior US official, who has been close to the administration's decision-making on the issue, said that the military is likely to leave behind some installations, possibly including a command and operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. ''They can use it for training purposes,'' the former official said on condition of anonymity.

After the Gulf War in 1991, the bulk of the US presence was geared toward enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq. But once a war starts, the zone presumably will cease to exist, the former official said.

''Drawing down those operations makes a lot of sense,'' the former official said. ''And now with anti-American sentiment so high, we are a target. We need to be sensitive to that fact - for our protection, also for the host governments.''

The senior administration official said the new US military map in the region would probably follow the model of the ongoing Afghanistan operation, in which the US maintains relatively small bases in neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan, what he called ''modules we can plug into if we have to.'' Others call it an ''over-the-horizon'' capability, in which US forces could respond quickly but have a much lower profile.

''Once Iraq is free, the war on terrorism doesn't end,'' the administration official said.

But with Hussein out of the picture, the US military presence should shrink, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell suggested in testimony this month to the House International Relations Committee. ''We'll be able to change the levels of American troops throughout the region in the absence of a threatening regime like Saddam Hussein's,'' Powell said.

How soon the reduction can be made remains to be seen. General Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, told senators Tuesday that possibly hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be needed to restore order in Iraq. The Pentagon, without challenging Shinseki's testimony, sought to temper that estimate yesterday, saying the figure was perhaps closer to 100,000.

Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said she thinks a pullback to pre-1991 levels would be a ''healthy position'' for the United States. But she was skeptical that such a reduction could be accomplished quickly. ''Iraq, the day after, will be messy,'' she said. Reducing the US presence in the region ''is the right thing. I don't know that we'll be able to.''

John Donnelly can be reached at

This story ran on page A24 of the Boston Globe on 2/28/2003.
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