Control of military flights in and around Iraq moved on Monday from Prince Sultan to Qatar's al-Udeid air base, said Rear Adm. Dave Nichols, deputy commander of the center. Nearly all of the 4,500 Air Force personnel and 100 U.S. planes based here will be gone by the end of the summer, he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and officials traveling with him said the U.S. military will remain in Saudi Arabia, but with a much smaller force focused primarily on training the Saudi military.
Rumsfeld spoke to troops in a hanger Tuesday morning after landing in the middle of a sandstorm after a flight from Qatar, thanking them for their efforts in overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Before moving on to Riyadh for talks later Tuesday with top Saudi leaders, Rumsfeld told the troops that "we do intend to maintain a continuing and healthy relationship with the Saudis."
Saudi officials have been uneasy about the presence of U.S. troops in their country since the 1991 war with Iraq, as shown by their attempts to stifle news that American commanders were running the Iraq air war from the Prince Sultan base.
U.S. officials say moving the air operations center should not be seen as evidence of a rift between the two nations. Instead, they say, it's part of an inevitable repositioning of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region now that one of its main military threats — Saddam's regime — is gone.
"Iraq was a threat in the region, and because that threat will be gone, we also will be able to rearrange our forces," Rumsfeld said after meeting with Thani and Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill.
Since becoming defense secretary, Rumsfeld has pressed for a transformation of America's armed forces to be faster and lighter. Under that principle, large contingents of troops may not be necessary anywhere. The Pentagon has also reportedly been considering thinning the size of troop contingents in Germany and South Korea, although no decisions have been made.
Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded the Iraq war from a base in Qatar, had signaled the move earlier, noting that both the Prince Sultan and al-Udeid bases have the high-tech equipment needed for American commanders to simultaneously keep track of hundreds of air missions over Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in the region.
Rumsfeld is touring the region this week to talk with allies before reaching final decisions. He met Monday with Qatar's leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who allowed the U.S. headquarters for the war to be built near here.
The presence of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia, the land of Islam's two holiest shrines, has enraged some militant Muslims. It is among the reasons given by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born fugitive who heads the al Qaeda terror network, for his hatred of the United States.
Tens of thousands of American service members were stationed in the region before the war with Iraq. Air Force and Navy aircraft patrolled no-fly zones over Iraq. Army soldiers and Marines held exercises in Kuwait as a warning to Saddam. Naval vessels patrolled the gulf, helping to look for ships violating the U.N. embargo against Iraq.
Prince Sultan had been used to control planes patrolling the southern no-fly zone, and operation the Pentagon called Operation Southern Watch.
"Now that Southern Watch has ended, there's no reason for us to be here, at least in the way we are now," said Air Force Gen. Ron Rand.
Rand and other U.S. officials here said no decision had been made on whether the Prince Sultan base would be kept "warm" — staffed with a skeleton crew and ready to be quickly prepared for use.
"Nothing's going to be torn down," Nichols said. "It will remain wired, but most of the computers and whatnot will be taken out."
Once Iraq is stabilized, the number of U.S. troops in the region should drop, Rumsfeld said Monday. He added he does not want to have permanent U.S. access to military bases inside Iraq.