Saudi Arabia announced yesterday it would veto the use of any of its territory
for an attack on Iraq. The announcement is a severe blow to attempts by the United
States and Britain to forge an international coalition against Saddam Hussein.
The public opposition by the Saudis, traditionally seen as the West's staunchest
Arab ally in the region, is the latest rebuff for George Bush and Tony Blair who
have found themselves increasingly isolated by European and Middle Eastern states,
as well as Russia and China.
The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder also issued his strongest warning
so far against an invasion of Iraq, saying it could "destroy the international
alliance against terrorism".
Because of the Saudi reticence, the United States is now planning to use Qatar
as its headquarters for the air campaign in any coming war. Work has been secretly
under way for months to build up an air base there in case the Saudis refused
permission, as they have.
The Al Udeid base, 20 miles from the Qatari capital, Doha, is now said to be
almost ready, and squadrons of American and British warplanes are expected to
arrive in the near future, according to defense sources.
Saudi Arabia was the launchpad for Western forces in the Gulf War and played
a crucial role in later actions against Iraq. The Prince Sultan air base is still
used by American and British warplanes to patrol the southern "no-fly zone". But
political and religious tension in the kingdom is now high amid a growing anti-Western
feeling, fueled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are also protests at
the continuing presence of large groups of American forces in the land of Islam's
Against that volatile backdrop, the kingdom also faces the likelihood of a
power struggle within the House of Saud between conservatives and reformers because
King Fahd is seriously ill in Geneva and may die.
The timing and the forthright nature of the statement, by Prince Saud al-Faisal,
the Foreign Minister, is seen as highly significant. He said: "We are against
any attack on Iraq because we believe it is not needed, especially now Iraq is
moving to implement United Nations resolutions. For the government of Iraq, the
leadership of Iraq, any change that happens there has to come from the Iraqi people."
Relations between the Saudis and Americans are at a low ebb. Colin Powell,
the US Secretary of State, rang Prince Saud yesterday in a fence-mending exercise
after it was revealed that a confidential Pentagon briefing had described Saudi
Arabia as a funder of international terrorism, and the "kernel of evil and the
most dangerous opponent" America faces in the Middle East.
The Bush administration meanwhile sent out conflicting messages. President
Bush said he would be "patient" and consult Congress and the US's allies over
Iraq, but Vice-President Dick Cheney stuck to the administration's hawkish stance
by expressing skepticism about the value of the UN inspectors' return. Presidential
aides later said it was not Mr Bush's intention to send a conciliatory message
by promising to explore "all options and all tools at my disposal: diplomacy,
international pressure, perhaps the military". US oil futures dipped because his
remarks were taken as a sign that an offensive was some time away.
The confusion was echoed across the Atlantic, when Mike O'Brien, a Foreign
Office minister, said war would be averted if Saddam Hussein readmitted arms inspectors.
But that was at odds with Tony Blair who supports Mr Bush's policy of "regime
change" in Baghdad.
If military action does begin, the Al Udeid base will play an important role.
Defense sources say it has a 12,500ft runway, with hangars fortified against chemical
and biological attacks, for up to 120 warplanes. The base has also been supplied
with satellite links that enable the command center to co-ordinate air strikes
and download reconnaissance footage from unmanned aircraft.
The US is expected to deploy F-16 and F-15E fighter bombers at the base, as
well as unmanned Predators and Global Hawks. The British contribution is likely
to consist of RAF Tornado strike aircraft, TriStar and VC-10s to provide air-to-air
refueling, and AWACS, Nimrods and Canberras for reconnaissance. The Americans
also have four warehouses with tanks and armour to equip a mechanized brigade
at Al Udeid.
President Saddam is due to address his nation in a televised speech today as
his government steps up efforts to avert a war.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd