A top Saudi official said Saturday that the nation is allowing U.S. troops to use two of its airports near the Iraqi border, but only for defensive purposes and to prepare for an anticipated flood of refugees in the event of war.
The remarks by Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, minister of defense and aviation, were the kingdom's first public confirmation of reports that U.S. troops are in the town of Arar, which shut its airport Wednesday.
Sultan also said U.S. troops are taking part in joint military exercises with Saudi forces in the northwestern garrison town of Tabuk, but he maintained that this is to defend the country from an outside threat, which he said may come from Israel.
Arar is about 30 miles from the Iraqi border. It was one of the staging points for attacks on Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"Arar was and will remain nonmilitary, but we are now on the threshold of war," Sultan told reporters. "We have called on the help of the Americans in a technical matter, so that we can know what is beyond in the desert, so that we don't get caught by surprise."
Saudi Arabia could not send its helicopters or planes into Iraq to watch for refugees if they rushed toward the kingdom's borders, he explained.
Saudi officials have said that the kingdom will not allow any attacks on Iraq from its soil and that several thousand U.S. airmen at its Prince Sultan air base near Riyadh are there only to patrol a "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq. But a buildup of foreign troops at the base in the last few weeks and reports of U.S. forces in Arar and Tabuk have fueled speculation that they might play a more active role in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
"We have no agreement with the United States in which they could descend or strike" Iraq, Sultan said.
Sultan said the kingdom was preparing to feed and shelter thousands of Iraqi refugees just outside its borders.
"We are prepared to house, feed and give medicine.... If 100,000 come we are prepared to house them inside their country, inside their desert, so that they would be near their families," he said.
Sultan acknowledged that U.S. troops are in Tabuk, about 50 miles from the Jordanian border and 125 miles from the southernmost tip of Israel.
"Tabuk is in a dangerous position. We do not forget that we are in 100% enmity with Israel, that Israel may try the impossible, to hurt the kingdom at this sensitive moment," he said.
"The biggest airplanes are now in Tabuk. The biggest striking force is now in Tabuk ... to protect it and the kingdom," Sultan added without further explanation. The U.S. is an ally of both Saudi Arabia and Israel.