Every so often an ear-shattering roar echoes from a cloudless sky, disrupting this tiny gulf nation's sleepy, sun-baked solitude.
Glancing up, Qataris watch U.S. jet fighters and military transports zoom by. This is about all they know of U.S. military preparations in their country, which could be a key location if there is war with Iraq.
Early next month they will get a concrete demonstration of Qatar's importance to the United States as 1,000 staffers from the U.S. Central Command's headquarters in Tampa stage a two-week communications exercise, the first time that CENTCOM has based such an exercise outside the United States.
So far, U.S. military officials say no decision has been made to retain their mobile headquarters in Qatar after the exercise, which will include the British and other, unidentified allies.
Some Qataris, however, are convinced that the United States will keep the nerve center for the military command here to run its war on terrorism in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The nation is in the same time zone as Baghdad, about 700 miles away, and the weather is similar to Iraq's.
"It's not clear what will happen. Our fate is tied to what takes place with the weapons inspectors in Iraq," said Maj. John Robinson, a CENTCOM spokesman who recently arrived in Qatar.
But it is clear that the military is looking down the road and that Qatar is part of that future as it prepares for the news media likely to flood in to be near U.S. command headquarters if war breaks out.
Attractive operational site
The U.S. has bases elsewhere in the region, but there are reasons that the U.S. military is drawn to Qatar, a scrap of desert filled with dunes and sun-bleached rocks.
"The country is stable, and they have welcomed us--those are two key characteristics," Robinson said.
In a region where most leaders are loath to embrace Washington publicly, Qataris do not hesitate to declare their solidarity with the United States.
In contrast, in Saudi Arabia--where the U.S. has its largest area air base and there is anger over U.S. policy in the Middle East--officials have been reluctant to say whether the United States can wage war on Iraq from their soil.
"We don't agree on everything 100 percent, but when push comes to shove, we are always there," a high-ranking Qatari official said.
The United States has something to gain from the friendship, but so does Qatar, a nation of just 150,000 citizens and nearly four times as many foreign workers.
A peninsula that juts out into the Persian Gulf, Qatar has only 12 jet fighters, three coast guard cutters and about 30 tanks, diplomats say. Fearful about neighbors jealous of Qatar's oil wealth, its leaders view their ties to the United States as insurance.
"We see that the gulf is unstable. We see no balance of power in the area. And so we, as a small country, need a powerful friend," said Hassan Saleh al-Ansari, a University of Michigan graduate and head of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University.
Like many in the gulf, Qataris were stunned when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States began using Qatar as a base to ship supplies, carry out aerial refueling and store military hardware for the war in Afghanistan. Its largest facility is at al Udeid, a Qatari air base that has one of the Middle East's longest runways.
There also is a base nicknamed Camp Snoopy near the Doha airport and another base, al Asyliyah, where military sources say the communications exercise, Operation Internal Look, will be based.
U.S. buildup detected
Al Udeid, which is in a stretch of desert about 20 miles from Doha and houses about 2,000 troops, has drawn the most curiosity.
"We don't really know what is going on there," said Sinan al Muslemany, deputy editor of al Watan, a leading daily newspaper in Qatar.
Rumors are rife among diplomats that the U.S. has replicated in Qatar its communications network in Saudi Arabia. But U.S. officials would not comment on developments at their facilities, especially the air base.
Recent satellite images and reports put on the Internet by GlobalSecurity.org, a defense watchdog group based in Alexandria, Va., say the base has been expanded to house up to 10,000 personnel and 120 aircraft.
"Before this imagery, we really had no idea what was going on," said Patrick Garrett, a GlobalSecurity staffer. "Now we know that the U.S. has one of its biggest air bases in the Middle East in Qatar."
Under orders to keep a low profile, U.S. troops have almost disappeared from the neon-lighted, American-style restaurants that dot Doha. But they can be seen wandering through the city's huge American-style mall.
Sipping coffee at a Starbucks one recent night, a tall soldier from Texas with a bright sunburn watched the crowd strolling along at the mall.
He would not give his name or say what he was doing in Qatar. But he did say he felt comfortable because "they want us here."