New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 27 Aug 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Goodbye Saudi Arabia, hello Qatar

An Al-AAhram analysis


In the run-up to the war in Iraq, well-heeled Qataris and expatriates would spend balmy nights enjoying the breeze at Doha's seaside Castle restaurant. Floating on a swaying quay, patrons would relax to live music and smoke apple-flavoured shisha. The picture-postcard scene was only spoilt by the massive US military planes that rumbled overhead every half hour, a reminder of the looming war and Qatar's crucial significance as a coordinating post.


Blacked-out C-130 transporters became a feature of the Castle's dining experience as they roared over the quay, rendering conversation impossible and underlining to everyone that all military operations in the US campaign to unseat former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be coordinated from Qatar.


Now, Qatar's key role will be boosted further. On Tuesday, in a major reshuffle of the American military presence in the Gulf region, it was announced that the nerve centre of US air operations will be shifted from Saudi Arabia to the tiny desert sheikdom. Operations are to be relocated to Al-Udeid airbase.


US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, taking what some analysts are calling a "victory lap" of Gulf countries who supported the US invasion of Iraq, announced in a joint press conference with Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdul-Aziz in Riyadh that the United States will end its military operations in Saudi Arabia and remove virtually all of its forces from the kingdom following the Iraq war. US military personnel in Saudi Arabia, which doubled to 10,000 during the attack on Iraq, have already started evacuating a desert airbase used by US planes since the end of the Gulf War.


The decision was made in concert with Washington, the Saudi defence minister said, denying press reports that Saudi Arabia had asked the United States to withdraw. However, the real reasons for the move appear to have much to do with the tense relations that governed Saudi-US relations in the 1990s and which led to a series of terrorist attacks against US military interests in the kingdom. The presence of Western troops in the country has irked many Saudis already angry with the United States over its support of Israel. Ousting US troops from Saudi Arabia became a battle cry of Osama Bin Laden and his Al- Qa'eda militants.


"It is very significant. It reduces America's dependence on Saudi Arabia and throws open the opportunity for Iraq to become America's favourite base in the region," says London-based defence analyst Paul Beaver.


Other analysts say that Riyadh's refusal to allow air strikes on Iraq by some 100 Saudi-based US aircraft may have been the deciding factor in the policy change. Beyond this, there have been signs in recent months that the US military has overstayed its welcome in Saudi Arabia. US forces were targeted in Dhahran in 1996 and in the Khobar Towers attack in 1997 by Islamists opposed to the military bases that have lingered in Saudi Arabia for the past 12 years.


The official line, as Rumsfeld told reporters after talks with the prince, is that the "liberation of Iraq" has changed the situation in the Gulf and allowed Washington to reduce its troops in the region. But the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia has been generating Islamist resentment because of their proximity to Islam's holiest sites. What was seen as a US occupation of the country was one of Saudi militant Bin Laden's major grievances.


"There are political advantages for both. The US will have greater freedom of action, the Saudis will feel more comfortable -- and neither of them will have to mention that it was a key demand of Osama Bin Laden," Tim Garden, security analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, told Reuters.


Saudi Arabia's ruling Al-Saud family faces US and internal pressure to liberalise politically and modernise an Islamic education system that influential Americans suggest has produced such militants as those belonging to Al-Qa'eda.


Paris-based defence analyst François Gere said Saudi Arabia was also entering a complex reorganisation of its leadership. "There is less need both for Saudi territory and Saudi oil, but one should not exaggerate. I think the second message is 'We Americans are going to withdraw a bit from Saudi Arabia and let these people sort out their domestic problems,'" he said.


In Iraq, the bid to win over the hearts and minds of Iraqis has not been helped by the US troops' insensitive policing tactics. In Al-Faluja, a Sunni hardliner-dominated city in Iraq, an anti-US demonstration led to US troops opening fire on a 200-strong crowd on Tuesday. Fifteen Iraqis were shot dead and 70 others wounded, Al-Jazeera reported.


Demonstrators congregated in the town, situated 90 kilometres west of Baghdad, to demand the evacuation of US forces. Imams from local mosques encouraged residents to call for an end to occupation. American soldiers had only entered Al-Faluja two days previously.


Al-Jazeera's Yusif Al-Shouli reported that "US forces are still taking up positions in many areas around Faluja. It is very clear to all that they are ready to use their weapons with little provocation."


"People here are still moving the bodies of those shot dead last night. Funeral processions have already begun from more than one mosque. Thousands of people are attending these funerals, protesting loudly against American occupation and promising revenge," said Al-Shouli.


Some Iraqis clashed with the American troops this morning, but those organising the funerals stopped them from throwing stones at the American soldiers. They also tried to prevent the people from standing directly in front of US positions.


"People here are very angry," says Al-Shouli. "They say they did not start the shooting last night and explain that what really happened was that American forces prevented people [from] staging a peaceful protest against US forces commandeering a boys elementary school in one of the neighbourhoods."


After the shooting, US soldiers removed the corpses and prevented the public from approaching the scene.


Similar reports of shootings and resistance are not restricted to central Iraq. In the northern city of Mosul, at least six Iraqis were killed when they exchanged fire with US forces. The commanding officer said his men had been forced to defend themselves against a group that may well have been a militia loyal to Saddam Hussein.


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