American Troops Allowed to Use Saudi Bases, Dissident Group Says

Saudi Arabia has allowed U.S. troops to use several of its air bases and offered logistical support for U.S ground forces in a possible war against Saddam Hussein, a Saudi dissident group said Saturday.

The Saudi Islamic Reform Movement said the move came after an understanding reached by the kingdom and the United States under which Saudi Arabia provides facilities to the U.S. forces in a possible conflict with Iraq.

Saad al-Faqih, the London-based representative of the movement, said soon after the agreement was reached six weeks ago, the United States deployed some 9,000 troops in a base in northern Saudi Arabia near the Iraqi border.

Al-Faqih said Saudi Arabia has also provided facilities in five major air bases, including one in the capital, Riyadh, and others in Araar, Tabuk and Hafer al-Baten on the Iraqi border.

Pentagon officials declined comment Saturday about the issue.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal denied the dissidents' reports, saying Saudi Arabia will not participate in any military actions against Iraq.

"The kingdom (of Saudi Arabia) does not and will not approve the use of its land for aggression against any Arab and Islamic country, including Iraq," Saud said.

Al-Faqih, whose reports about internal developments in the kingdom have proved credible, said he received his information from Saudi delegates who participated in negotiations with the Americans.

"There is no other reason for these troops to be there if not to take part in the war against Iraq," al-Faqih told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Later, he told the Qatar-based Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera that the number of U.S. ground troops has reached about 30,000. They are stationed at bases on the Saudi side of the border with Iraq, he said.

On Friday, sources in Saudi Arabia told the AP the government shut down civilian flights to the airport in Araar, about 40 miles south of the Iraqi border.

The sources, who spoke on condition they not be further identified, said hundreds of American troops have deployed at the Araar airport. The Pentagon declined comment on the report.

On Wednesday, another Saudi dissident organization based in Washington said it obtained a secret document showing that Araar airport was closed to the public.

The Saudi Information Agency, which is affiliated with the dissident Saudi Institute, said the document was issued Tuesday by the director of Al-Jawf Airport, Yousef Hamaad Al-Balawi.

The document advised the airport police chief that Araar Airport was closing March 4 and all civilian flights were to be diverted to Al-Jawf.

The dissident organization quoted a witness who traveled through Araar Airport earlier this week as saying he saw dozens of American soldiers and a lot of equipment at the airport.

In Riyadh, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan said late Saturday the Araar airport was closed "for the safety of Araar and the people of Araar." He did not elaborate.

"We are on the verge of war and the situation is different from what it was in 1991," the prince said. "There's no secret U.S. base and we closed the airport for humanitarian reasons."

Saudi Arabia — fearful of internal, Muslim extremist backlash — has said it will not allow U.S. troops to use its territories to attack Iraq. But officials said U.S. and British flights from an air base in the kingdom to monitor Iraq would continue.

Last month, the influential Saudi ambassador to Washington reportedly told a closed seminar held by Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, an Egyptian think tank, that the kingdom has no other option but to join U.S. efforts.

"We either join the club or will be out of it," some participants quoted Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan as saying.

Saud said Saudi Arabia will not be able to stop an American invasion of its northern neighbor and held out hope that Washington will not attack if Iraq fulfilled the demands of the United Nations.

"I don't think the United States is the kind of country that goes in the course of unjustified aggression," he said. "If Iraq presented what it had in weapons of mass destruction the matter will be over."

In the 1991 Gulf War, the kingdom invited the United States to help defend it against Iraqi soldiers, who were moving south toward Saudi Arabia after occupying Kuwait.

The presence of U.S. troops in a country that houses Islam's holiest shrines angered Muslims and produced a cause for Osama bin Laden to rally militants.

On Friday, three prominent Saudi clerics issued statements warning that Saudis who assist U.S. troops will be considered "Kafir," or infidels.