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U.S.: Command Center Staff Moves To Qatar, Ups Pressure On Iraq

The Central Command of the U.S. armed forces plans to send up to one-fourth of its staff from its Florida headquarters to Qatar in November. Pentagon officials say the move will establish a command structure in the Persian Gulf region that could oversee any possible war against Iraq. RFE/RL examines the political and military implications of the move.

Prague, 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Defense Department has confirmed that some 600 key staff from the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command in Florida will be sent to Qatar for an exercise in November.

The U.S. Central Command is in charge of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan, and is headed by General Tommy Franks. A spokesman for Franks, Major John Robinson, said the purpose of the three-week exercise, called Operation Internal Look '03, is to test the ability to rapidly deploy a command headquarters in a crisis.

But numerous Pentagon officials have told Western journalists privately that the staff will stay in Qatar longer than three weeks as part of a forward command center that could oversee possible military action against Iraq.

The Pentagon's announcement came ahead of a speech to the United Nations General Assembly today by U.S. President George W. Bush. Bush is expected to tell the UN to take action against Iraq for its continued violations of Security Council resolutions, including the terms of Iraq's Gulf War cease-fire agreement of April 1991.

Clifford Beal, the editor of the London-based journal "Jane's Defence Weekly," told RFE/RL today that the timing of the Pentagon announcement appears to be aimed at increasing pressure on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to allow international weapons inspectors into the country unconditionally in order to confirm that Baghdad has honored its pledge to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction. "This is a very strong political signal to the Iraqi regime of the seriousness of intent of the United States government. It will certainly ratchet up the political pressure," Beal said.

Beal also thinks it is likely the headquarters staff will stay in Qatar after the three-week exercise is completed. Beal said it is essential for the United States to set up a forward command center near Iraq if it is to conduct the military operations threatened by Bush in order to oust Saddam from power. "From a purely military sense, and an operational sense, it's useful and significant for the American military to start preparing the ground for any future military action. During the war in Afghanistan, it wasn't felt necessary to move the command headquarters to the theater of operations. They operated from Tampa, Florida. Here we are talking about an exercise. And they feel they can move up to 600 people just for an exercise? It doesn't totally ring true. There is obviously more to this than meets the eye," Beal said.

The U.S. established its headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to oversee coalition air strikes and ground operations in the 1991 Gulf War. The Saudi government, however, no longer welcomes an expanded U.S. military presence and has said it will not allow air strikes to be launched against Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan from its territory.

"The key here is the fact that the U.S. is trying to set up and put into place a command structure in [the military] theater that will be ready to roll when, and if, the decision to take military action against Iraq is made. There is no certainty that they can do this from Saudi Arabia given the political situation there. So it is crucial that they have a backup command structure in place in theater," Beal said.

Indeed, the United States used Qatar's Al Ueid air base to launch air strikes against Afghanistan last year and has been developing the infrastructure there ever since. The 5-kilometer runway at the Al Ueid air base is the longest in the Gulf region. Since operations were launched against the Taliban regime, the United States has built new runways and parking ramps at Al Ueid and has fortified hangers to protect U.S. warplanes from bombing raids.

A tent city also has been erected that can house several thousand soldiers, and bunkers for bombs and other ordnance have been built. "There's been a lot of development of the facilities at Qatar, including the air base," said Beal. "And clearly, this is insurance for the United States military because of the doubts that remain around the Saudi bases and the American use of those bases during any war on Iraq. This [move of staff from the headquarters in Florida] is clearly an important development. I think we will see further developments and further movements of troops in the coming weeks."

Beal said that if the U.S. is serious about its intentions to oust Saddam from power, it would be wasteful to send a command structure to Qatar for an exercise of short duration and then pull everyone out, only to resurrect the headquarters again a few weeks or months later. "This is all part and parcel of developments that have been going on for a number of months. One must not lose sight of the fact that there is a huge amount of pre-positioned equipment, supplies and personnel in that region already. And there has been so for many months now. There is reason to this. And there is a full plan here. And I don't think, obviously, all of us know exactly what the full plan is. But one should always be thinking like a military person. And they are thinking in terms of contingencies. They are thinking in terms of basing, access to bases, overflight rights, all of these things. Even if war does not come, all of the contingencies must be put into place so that the [U.S.] commander in chief [President Bush] can make the decision," Beal said.

More than 5,000 U.S. Army soldiers are already deployed at Camp Doha in Kuwait. And correspondents report that there is enough predeployed equipment there to accommodate an additional 25,000 troops. Several thousand U.S. Air Force and Navy personnel are also stationed in Kuwait and Bahrain, while there are more than 2,000 U.S. Marines on Navy ships in the Persian Gulf region.