WASHINGTON – Both the White House and the Secretary of State traveling in Nepal Friday disputed a Friday newspaper article suggesting that Saudi Arabia is considering kicking the U.S. military out of the kingdom.
"The president believes that our presence in the region has a very helpful and stabilizing effect in a region that is a dangerous one," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in response to questions about The Washington Post story on Saudi Arabia seeking to rid their country of US military presence.
Fleischer said he is unaware of any contact or message from the Saudis on this topic and indicated he dismisses the report due to its heavy reliance on anonymous officials.
The president and Crown Prince Abdullah spoke as recently as Monday morning to discuss the war on terrorism and achieving peace in the Middle East, Fleischer said. The president thanked the Saudis for their friendship, cooperation and help. No mention was made of a U.S. military pullout.
At a news conference in Katmandu, Nepal, Powell said he talks to Saudi officials every other day and "there has been no discussion of such an issue," he said.
"We're constantly reviewing our footprint to see if we have the right distribution of our presence in the various countries over there. We want to be good guests in all the countries that host our military forces and (Defense) Secretary Rumsfeld keeps this under review. No, there is nothing to that story that warrants my attention at the moment or Secretary Rumsfeld's," Powell said.
U.S. forces have been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the 1990 buildup to the Gulf War. They primarily are at Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh, the capital. From there, the United States runs a combined air operations center, which coordinates U.S. air operations in the region — including missions flown over Afghanistan since October.
At the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said the Saudi government has not asked the United States to remove its forces from the kingdom.
But the notion of a U.S. withdrawal would not have been unique to the Saudis. Earlier this week, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee said the Saudi government's antagonism toward U.S. military personnel warrants consideration of a withdrawal.
"We need a base in that region, but it seems to me we should find a place that is more hospitable," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "I don't think they want us to stay there."
Fleischer said the United States and Saudi Arabia have been afforded a mutually beneficial relationship, something Levin said he's not sure the Saudis realize.
"I just think the Saudis actually think somehow they are doing us a favor by having us be there helping to defend them and helping to be in a position to go after terrorists and terrorist states," Levin said.
But Air Force Secretary James Roche said the U.S. is not looking for alternatives to Saudi Arabia as host of a major air coordination center.
He said cooperation from the Saudis has been excellent and they had in no way hindered U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
"Everything we have asked of the Saudi government they have done for us," he said.
Roche was asked how big the loss would be if the Saudis insisted on ending the U.S. military presence.
"It would be difficult, unless we could replicate the air operations center somewhere else," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.