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Afghanistan: U.S. Military Plans Put Saudi Arabia In Difficult Position

Prague, 1 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Saudi Arabia over the weekend said it would not allow the U.S. or its allies use its military bases to launch strikes on Afghan territory in retaliation for the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

In an interview published yesterday in the state-controlled "Okaz" newspaper, Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz said Saudi Arabia would not accept on its territory "even a single soldier who would attack Muslims or Arabs."

Prince Sultan's comments appear to contradict earlier statements made both in Riyadh and Washington.

Last Friday (28 September), AP quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying Riyadh had tacitly agreed to allow U.S. troops use a command center at the Prince Sultan air base in al-Kharj, about 100 kilometers south of the Saudi capital. Gulf diplomats made similar statements to AFP.

In comments reported the same day, Bush said Saudi Arabia was cooperating with the U.S. in terms of any military planning Washington might be doing.

Earlier last week (26 September), Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faysal implied that his country would consider helping U.S. military efforts. Prince Saud told journalists, "Saudi Arabia will not avoid its duty."

Comments made yesterday by Prince Sultan reflect Riyadh's difficult position in appearing to follow directly in Washington's wake.

Saudi Arabia, along with Pakistan, helped Afghanistan's Taliban militia take power in the mid-1990s. Until recently, the country was one of only three to recognize the Taliban regime.

But since the 11 September attacks, Saudi Arabia -- the U.S.'s main ally in the Gulf region -- has sought to distance itself from the militia.

Like most Arab capitals, Riyadh condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and pledged full cooperation with the U.S. in fighting international terrorism. Last week, Saudi Arabia severed ties with the Taliban, leaving Pakistan as the sole country to recognize the militia.

The prime suspect behind the terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden, was born in Saudi Arabia, but he left the country after the 1990-1991 Gulf War against Iraq. He is now believed to be in hiding in Afghanistan, sheltered by the Taliban.

Riyadh is obviously anxious to dispel doubt regarding any other possible connections between Saudi nationals and the attacks.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Interior Minister Prince Nayef said there was no solid proof that eight Saudis were involved in the attacks, as the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has suggested.

Prince Nayef said Saudi passports used by the suspects reportedly identified by the U.S. agency might have been stolen and that, should it been proved that Saudi nationals were indeed involved in the attacks, Riyadh should not be held responsible.

Saudi Arabia is viewed by many of the world's 1 billion Muslims as the holy land of Islam. Some Muslims view the presence of non-Islamic soldiers in that country as sacrilege.

Bin Laden and the Taliban have urged Muslims around the world to wage a "jihad" (holy struggle) against the U.S. and its allies should they decide to strike Afghanistan. Although experts on Islam generally believe such a call would have only a limited impact, Arab countries have expressed concern that full-scale military strikes on Afghanistan would cause anger and resentment among Muslims.

In his interview yesterday with the "Okaz" newspaper, Prince Sultan did not mention the 4,500 to 6,000 U.S. soldiers who are reportedly stationed at the al-Kharj air base. Nor did he address the 175 U.S. warplanes that have been deployed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in anticipation of possible strikes on Afghanistan.

Prince Sultan only acknowledged the presence of about 40 U.S., British, and French warplanes which, he said, were being used under the auspices of the United Nations to patrol a "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq.