WASHINGTON – Saudi Arabia has privately assured U.S. officials they could launch air support missions from Saudi bases in the event of a war with Iraq and could coordinate the air war from a central command post near the Saudi capital, Pentagon officials said Saturday.
Saudi Arabia is a long-standing American ally, but its willingness to permit U.S. forces to operate from the kingdom's soil for attacks on Iraq has been in serious doubt for many months. Saudi Arabia was the most important staging area for U.S. forces during the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.
Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said Saturday she could not comment on specific arrangements the Pentagon has made with Saudi Arabia or any other ally. She said it is U.S. policy not to discuss basing arrangements.
Even so, she indicated that the Bush administration has reason to believe the Saudis will do as much as they can to support the United States.
"We are confident they will be an important ally going forward," she said.
Other officials said Saturday on condition of anonymity that the Saudis have given private assurances that U.S. support aircraft, such as cargo, surveillance and refueling planes, could operate from Saudi bases.
These officials said the Saudis also are willing to allow the United States to coordinate and direct an air campaign against Iraq from the Combined Air Operations Center, a state-of-the-art command center at Prince Sultan Air Base, south of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
It remains unclear whether the Saudis would agree to allow U.S. strike aircraft to use Saudi air bases or fly through Saudi airspace en route to targets in Iraq. One U.S. official said it seemed unlikely the Saudis would allow that, although discussions apparently are expected to continue.
The Saudis' willingness to allow use of the Prince Sultan command center and other air bases for support missions was first reported by The New York Times in a story posted on the Internet for Sunday editions.
The newspaper also reported that Saudi officials have been allowing U.S. warplanes based in Saudi Arabia to fly strike missions for the past two months in southern Iraq in support of the "no fly" zone south of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
U.S. planes had been flying those missions mainly out of Kuwait and from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.
Publicly, Saudi officials have been noncommittal about allowing their territory to be used as a staging area for war against Iraq.
In addition to Saudi Arabia, U.S. forces would rely on bases in Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, if President Bush decides to use military force against Iraq.