U.S. Could Thin Mideast Forces

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld arrives to speak to coalition troops Monday, April 28, 2003 during his visit to US Central Command headquarters at the As-Saliyah base, outside Doha, Qatar. (AP Photo/Luke Frazza, Pool)
The United States hopes to reduce its military presence in the Gulf region now that the threat from Saddam Hussein is over, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday.

"The forces that were necessary to liberate Iraq are not necessary for the stability period," Rumsfeld told reporters after meeting with Qatar's leader and the Australian defense minister. "Iraq was a threat in the region and because that threat will be gone, we also will be able to rearrange our forces."

Rumsfeld also said the commander of U.S. military forces in the Gulf, Gen. Tommy Franks, is considering moving a sophisticated air operations center from its current base in Saudi Arabia.

Franks is contemplating relocating the air operations center from the Saudis' Prince Sultan Air Base, Rumsfeld said.

The center could be moved to the al-Udeid air base in Qatar, which was updated just before the Iraq war and has the facilities and equipment to host the operations center currently at the Prince Sultan base, which was finished in 2001 at a cost of $45 million.

Earlier, Rumsfeld told cheering troops that the U.S.-led war in Iraq was a historic success that will influence military spending and doctrine for decades.

The military, he said, used "an unprecedented combination of power, precision, speed, flexibility, and, I would add, compassion."

"Baghdad was liberated in less than a month, possibly the fastest march on a capital in modern military history," Rumsfeld said.

He spoke to hundreds of desert camouflage-clad troops in a warehouse at the command headquarters for the Iraq campaign. Though the troops in Qatar were involved in command and logistics, not direct combat, they played a key role, the secretary said.

"You protected our country from a gathering danger and liberated the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld said. Later, he added: "You liberated a country, but how you did it will help transform the way we defend our country in the 21st century."

Rumsfeld is visiting the Gulf region this week to thank the troops and discuss the future American military presence with leaders of allied nations. He met with Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar's leader.

Rumsfeld also met with Australian Defense Minister Sen. Robert Hill, who is taking a similar tour of the region. Hill said Australia — which contributed several thousand troops to the war effort — was looking for ways to help with the postwar phase in Iraq.

Fifty Australian air traffic controllers are headed to the Baghdad International Airport to help coordinate humanitarian aid flights, Hill said.

Although Rumsfeld said his trip to the region is not a "victory tour," he and Franks were clearly celebrating the American success in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime.

"Because of all of you, Iraqis are able to raise their voices in debate without fear of torture or death," Franks told the troops Monday.

Rumsfeld also lashed out at early critics of the war.

"There were a lot of hand wringers around, weren't there?" a grinning Rumsfeld said in response to a question about commentators second-guessing the war. Rumsfeld said a Washington humorist told him, "Never have so many been so wrong about so much."

The defense secretary also praised Franks for what Rumsfeld called a great plan with "brilliant execution."