ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – The United States wants to keep using military bases in friendly Persian Gulf countries, including a high-tech command center in Qatar where planners directed the war in Iraq, U.S. officials said Sunday.
Officials are considering moving the air operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, which ran the Iraq air war. One possibility is a shift to the Qatar (search) base, Camp As Sayliyah.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the top war commander, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with officials in the United Arab Emirates (search) on the first stop of a tour of the region. After talks with the UAE's defense minister and chief of staff, Rumsfeld and Franks said American military forces were not going to leave any time soon.
"We assured them that the United States intends to do what is necessary to make sure there is a secure environment in Iraq," Rumsfeld said.
"There's no question but that the people of this region are safer today than they were when the Saddam Hussein regime was in power."
Rumsfeld is in the region to meet with U.S. troops involved in the war in Iraq and to discuss America's role after overthrowing Saddam. Rumsfeld also plans to visit Afghanistan this week to see government leaders and U.S. troops.
The defense secretary has said the United States is considering reducing or rearranging its presence in the Persian Gulf region now that the threat from Iraq is over.
But Franks said a possible reduction in the American use of ports and air bases in the UAE did not come up Sunday. He said the issues needs more study.
Franks said the U.S. military presence in the region might increase, at least in the short term, as stability and humanitarian relief missions in Iraq and Afghanistan continue.
The United States also wants to keep using the Qatar command center built just before the war and used by Franks as his headquarters for the Iraq campaign.
"We do know that we want to use it, now that we have it," Franks said.
Rumsfeld and Franks said they are pleased with progress in the search for top members of Saddam's government. Ordinary Iraqis are a big help, Franks said.
"They want these people out of their country," Franks said.
U.S. forces announced Sunday they had captured Lt. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, Saddam's chief contact with U.N. weapons inspectors.
Amin was No. 49 on the U.S. list of 55 most wanted Iraqis. His capture brings to 13 the number of officials on that list whom U.S. officials have acknowledged as being in custody.
Former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz (search) seems to be cooperating with his American interrogators but his claims must be checked to see if they are true, Franks said. Aziz turned himself in to U.S. forces in Baghdad on Thursday.
"How cooperative and how truthful he is, we'll have to see over time," Franks said.
The general said the United States will have to search several thousand sites for evidence of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. American forces started the war with a list of about 1,000 suspect sites, and for each site on the list, Iraqis tell Americans about one or two others, Franks said.
U.S. troops found about a dozen 55-gallon drums in an open field in northern Iraq, and initial tests indicated one of them contained a mixture of a nerve agent and mustard agent, an American officer said Sunday.
Iraq is becoming more stable and secure every day, Franks said, but it is up to President Bush and Rumsfeld to decide when to declare that major combat is over. Tensions inside Iraq still simmer, he said.
"There is a great deal of uncertainty. There is a great deal of fear," Franks said. "There are tribal animosities. There are religious animosities."
In Abu Dhabi, Rumsfeld and Franks said they thanked the UAE leaders for their war help, which included sending troops to Kuwait and humanitarian aid to Iraq.
UAE officials did not speak to journalists or issue a statement after the talks.
Franks and Rumsfeld met with Crown Prince Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the son of the UAE president. The UAE's defense minister, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and chief of staff of the armed forces, Lt. Gen. Sheik Mohammad Zayed Al Nahyan, also participated.
U.S. troops have used bases in the UAE since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which the UAE joined the coalition to oust Saddam's invading forces from Kuwait. American aircraft using the al-Dhafra air base near Abu Dhabi have included U-2 and Global Hawk surveillance planes as well as refueling tankers.
The UAE government has not indicated it wants to close off its bases to the United States, a U.S. official said Sunday. The UAE's concerns include a territorial dispute with Iran over three small islands in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. officials say the UAE also has helped in the war on terrorism, and a top former Iraqi nuclear weapons scientist, Jaffar al-Jaffer, turned himself in to authorities in the UAE after fleeing Iraq through Syria.