U.S. Military Mulls Saudi Force Move

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military is considering plans to move most of the 1,500 American troops currently deployed in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh to a remote desert air base to reduce their vulnerability to terrorist attacks, Defense Secretary William Perry said.


But Perry said U.S. officials are planning to maintain at full strength the American military force of more than 5,000 service members in Saudi Arabia, despite last week's deadly bombing of a building housing U.S. Air Force personnel.


"We are not planning a reduction of forces'' in the desert nation, Perry told reporters travelling with him from Bosnia to Germany on Thursday. "We are not going to cut and run from Saudi Arabia.''


Both Saudi and American officials want to diminish both the vulnerability and visibility of U.S. forces in the desert kingdom because Moslem fundamentalists there claim the American presence is a blight on Islam.


U.S. officials are also reviewing the option of moving some of the several thousand Air Force airmen and support personnel currently deployed at a sprawling base in Dhahran, where last week's bombing occurred, but that is only a "long-range'' option at this point, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.


At Dhahran, 19 U.S. military personnel were killed and hundreds of people were injured when a 5,000-pound truck bomb exploded next to a U.S. military housing complex.


In November another bomb, left outside a Riyadh facility devoted to training the Saudi National Guard, killed seven people, including five Americans.


After the first bombing, Saudi authorities asked U.S. officials to consider reducing the American military presence in Riyadh and moving more forces to a remote air base in al-Kharj, south of Riyadh, that had been used by the U.S. Air Force during the Gulf War in 1991, Bacon said. Perry then asked U.S. military officials to "accelerate planning'' for that possibility, Bacon said.


"We are looking at the possibility of reducing our exposure or footprint'' at various U.S. facilities in the country, starting with Riyadh, Bacon said. ''There have been no firm decisions ... We're looking at everything.'' Approximately 1,500 U.S. military personnel are based in various sites in and around the Saudi capital city. Some, such as those who handle liaison with the Saudi military and Foreign Ministry, would have to stay in Riyadh, U.S. officials said. Any move to al-Kharj could take months because dormitories, offices and other facilities would have to be constructed, officials said.


U.S. officials said they're unlikely to make any decisions until next month, when a task force headed by retired General Wayne Downing will wrap up a review of U.S. forces' security in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.