U.S. Buildup Fraying Nerves in Saudi Arabia

Times Staff Writer

There is a little slice of America in this desert capital. To see it, you drive half an hour south of the city center, out to where Riyadh's shimmering office towers and air-conditioned shopping malls give way to cement factories, power stations and the relentless desert sand.

There, behind concrete and barbed wire, lies the housing complex known as Eskan Village, home to about 100 U.S. military advisors and hundreds of other Defense Department employees and contractors.

The entrance to the compound was briefly closed Monday as guards searched a car thought to contain a small explosive. It turned out to be a false alarm. The strained nerves were not. As a possible conflict with Iraq looms closer, U.S. officials face the daunting prospect of coordinating major aspects of the air campaign deep within the frontiers of a reluctant ally.

This is not the Saudi Arabia that ushered in U.S. forces in 1990 to help fend off an Iraqi army marching toward its borders. This is a monarchy that fears political instability in the Middle East more than it fears Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a country that produced 15 of the Sept. 11 terrorists and that could, officials here say, witness significant acts of terror directed at U.S. forces with the opening of any new conflict with Iraq.

The kingdom's grudging approach to its partnership with the U.S. has slowed the course of the American military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the need to keep any moves as low-key as possible. Yet quietly, Saudi Arabia has cleared the way for a substantial U.S. presence, ranging from warplanes that in recent weeks have stepped up the pressure against air defenses in southern Iraq, to U.S. search and rescue forces positioned on the border with Iraq.

American officials say a major part of the air war could be coordinated from the U.S. Air Force's state-of-the-art combined aerospace operations center 60 miles southeast of Riyadh. Last fall, the Saudis were indicating that they would not allow the center to be used for that purpose, forcing the U.S. military to move some functions to Qatar.

It is an excruciatingly delicate balancing act for Saudi officials, who at once need to ensure that Iraqi forces can't attack their nation and to placate a population that sees any U.S.-led attack on Iraq as an assault on their religion and identity.

"I don't think any of you dislike Saddam more than we do. After all, it's not so far from here that his rockets hit during the Gulf War. None of us will be weeping over Saddam's disappearance," said an advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah. "But we worry. War starts today, and you don't know where tomorrow it will be, what the collateral damage will be; these are things we can't calculate. We hope and pray the suffering will end soon."

As the prospects for a diplomatic resolution with Iraq dimmed Monday, Americans working in the kingdom reported increasing public hostility -- "I've been cursed at. I've been spit at. I've been driven off the road twice," a software company manager living in Riyadh said -- and Saudis expressed growing unease with the prospect of war.

"The prophet Muhammad has warned us about this. This is the sign of the end of times," said Ajalam Ahmed, a 27-year-old communications student, as he strolled with a friend at one of downtown Riyadh's glitzy shopping malls.

Sources close to the Saudi royal family say it was only significant and sustained U.S. pressure that prompted the monarchy to agree to a number of key military concessions, including allowing U.S. Tomahawk missiles launched from ships in the Red Sea to travel through Saudi airspace, closing down a civilian airport on the Iraqi border for deployment of U.S. surveillance teams and -- most important -- use of the Air Force's air operations center at the Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh to help direct any air campaign against Iraq.

Still undecided is whether the large number of U.S. warplanes positioned at Prince Sultan to patrol a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq will be permitted to join any combat operations.

"The Saudi government position is they do not want to use Saudi Arabia for any attacks," said one U.S. official who requested anonymity. But the Americans don't necessarily consider the matter decided. "At the time, if hostilities do erupt, then they'll make that decision," the official said.

Another source said Saudi officials late last year "quietly changed the rules of engagement at U.S. requests to allow offensive missions" as well as aerial refueling operations for U.S. combat planes.

U.S. pilots flying out of Saudi Arabia recently have stepped up attacks on Iraq's air defenses in the southern no-fly zone in response to evidence that the Iraqis are preparing to engage the aircraft or move equipment and ammunition into the area to enhance antiaircraft systems.

The Saudis' agreement to allow the use of the air operations control facility near Riyadh would allow American air controllers to integrate up-to-the-minute streams of intelligence from satellites, U-2 spy planes and Predator reconnaissance drones with on-the-ground intelligence from civilian experts and the CIA, converting information quickly into precise targeting data that can be transmitted to combat aircraft.

While the U.S. military's Central Command regional headquarters in Qatar would take on many oversight operations in case of war, the Saudi facility is more sophisticated. Even its partial use could be an important asset in coordinating air attacks, military strategists said.

At the same time, in what has proved to be an important setback, the Saudis have not authorized the unloading of combat materiel at the mammoth port facility at Dammam on the Persian Gulf.

Partly as a consequence, there have been delays in getting into position the shiploads of heavy equipment still bound for any ground campaign. Kuwait's ports are smaller, and with Turkey also not allowing the offloading of ships, a war could begin with crucial weaponry, equipment and supplies still at sea.

U.S. officials have stopped short of blaming Saudi Arabia for the bottleneck in Kuwait. But they admit that the relationship with this kingdom is delicate.

"A lot has depended on what our Saudi hosts will permit. For right now, their official position is they support the [war] effort," said Maj. John Anderson, an Air Force spokesman at Prince Sultan Air Base. "I think it really ends up being like with any coalition effort. They have vital interests and we have vital interests, and where we work together is where those vital interests are the same."

The negotiations have not been easy.

"The U.S. is pressing them, and they're coming through," said one diplomat in Riyadh. "In the current circumstances, this is tough for them. This is heavy lifting for them. They're caught between the mood in the street and the demands [the U.S.] is making on them."

The U.S. government by no means got all it sought.

"[But] there's a much higher degree of Saudi cooperation than most people realize," said Anthony Cordesman, who wrote an exhaustive review of the Saudi military for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

He added that it is likely to continue into the future. "The fact is, we need each other."

Still, both the Saudis and Americans have made it clear that the large U.S. military presence at Prince Sultan -- currently estimated at about 4,500 personnel and squadrons of F-15s, F-16s, EA-6B Prowlers, KC-135 refuelers and AWACS surveillance planes -- will largely dwindle away if Hussein is driven from power in Iraq. There will be, both sides say, no further need for patrolling the southern no-fly zone, the purpose for which Prince Sultan was created.

"What the Saudis would like to see is a return to pre-1990, when the U.S. presence was over the horizon and out of sight," said one diplomat in the Saudi capital. Yet at the same time, he said, "the one thing the Saudis say again and again is they will let nothing get between the leadership of the country and the United States of America. It's that important to them."

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