Saudis to let US use bases in any war with Iraq


SAUDI ARABIA: The Saudi government has agreed to allow US planes to use its bases in any war with Iraq, US military commanders have claimed - providing a crucial strategic boost for the Bush administration as it ordered the deployment of thousands more troops, two more aircraft carriers and one of the navy's two hospital ships to the Gulf.

In Baghdad at the weekend, President Saddam Hussein's regime, in accordance with security council requirements, handed over a list of 500 Iraqi scientists formerly involved in weapons programmes to inspectors.

But the momentum for conflict appeared to build when one of the first scientists interviewed angrily denounced the inspectors at a press conference, urging his colleagues to co-operate only if Iraqi government minders were present.

Saudi Arabia's stance towards US forces on its territory has fluctuated in recent months, as it contends with domestic political tensions and struggles to maintain friendly relations with Washington.

US commanders, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times that Riyadh had now given permission for American aircraft to fly support missions - including surveillance, refuelling trips and cargo transport - and to use the well equipped operations centre at the Prince Sultan air base outside the capital.

US officials were divided as to whether Saudi Arabia would also eventually also allow strike aircraft to take off on bombing missions from its bases, or allow them to cross its airspace. It emerged yesterday that the nation has permitted US fighter planes to fly such missions in recent weeks to enforce the no-fly zone to the south of Baghdad.

Maj Sandy Troeber, a Defence Department spokeswoman, said Pentagon officials "have been on the record as saying Saudi Arabia has been a strong ally, supporting the fight against international terrorism" but that other details would remain confidential.

Saudi Arabia, the key centre of command in the 1991 Gulf War, remains the ideal strategic site for co-ordinating operations. Its importance may act as an incentive to the Bush administration to stick to the UN route, after Prince Saud al-Faisal told CNN last week that his country's support "depends on the war. If it is a war that is through the United Nations, with consensus on it, we will have to decide on that based on the national interests of Saudi Arabia".

Mr Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, meanwhile signed a military order on Saturday that will at least double the 50,000 ground troops stationed close to Iraq.

Despite the military build-up, the US Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, maintained that President Bush had not yet decided to wage war on Iraq. "He hopes for a peaceful solution but at the same time we are taking prudent action, positioning our forces so that they will be ready to do whatever might be required," he said on American television.

US agencies were providing intelligence to UN inspectors in Iraq. "We'll see what they're able to come up with," he said.

The hospital ship USNS Comfort could leave Baltimore, where it is stationed, as soon as today, heading for the British base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

Weapons inspectors made further visits to suspect facilities in Iraq yesterday. But the prospects for successful interviews with the scientists on the regime's list seemed dim after the Iraqi metallurgist launched a public tirade against the inspectors.

At a press conference organised by Iraq's national monitoring directorate, Mr Kadhim Mijbel, the second scientist to be interviewed so far said: "How can an Iraqi man leave Iraq? How? I'm an Iraqi man. I advise my colleague scientists and researchers to take representatives with them from the \ to protect their rights and to be witnesses."

In a development that could prove significant for Washington's coalition-building efforts, Germany's foreign minister, Mr Joschka Fischer, declined to rule out the possibility that Germany would vote for war.

- (Guardian Service)