As war looms, tiny Qatar fills a big US need

600 US Central Command staffers will go to a US base in Qatar in November.

The sign simply reads "Army camp" in scratched English letters, a discreet understatement for the $1.4 billion American air force base – the potential nerve center for a United States-led attack against Iraq – under construction just a mile away.

Qatar, a tiny oil- and gas-rich peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf, is a key Arab ally for Washington in a region where anti-American sentiment has been on the rise, and old allies have balked at assisting the US with its war plans. Saudi Arabia, one of America's strongest regional friends, initially rejected the prospect of the US directing its campaign against Iraq from its soil, underlining the strains in the Saudi-US relationship since the Sept. 11 attacks.

But Qatar, isolated and vulnerable, has hitched its prospects to the United States with few reservations. It has placed no operational restrictions on the US military, which has encouraged an expansion of Al-Udeid in recent months and the transfer of equipment from the Prince Sultan air base south of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. The Al-Udeid base has grown into an alternative headquarters for the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which has operational responsibility for an attack on Iraq. The Pentagon announced last week that 600 staff from CENTCOM's headquarters in Florida will travel to Al-Udeid in November, ostensibly to participate in a military exercise.

Washington is often viewed with distrust, if not open hostility, by Arab regimes in the Middle East. But Qatar is cheerfully unapologetic over its close relationship with the US.

"The Gulf is not a safe place, and we are a very small country," says a senior Qatari official. "An expanded military relationship between the US and all the Gulf is of paramount importance."

In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, Qatar made a strategic choice to expand its ties with the US. That relationship was stepped up after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father, the emir, in a bloodless coup in 1995.

"We are a small country and we have a small population in an area that has long been unstable," says Prof. Hassan al-Ansari, the head of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University. "We need to have a strategic relationship with the US." He added that the Qatari leadership has tried to persuade Washington to adopt a more even-handed approach in its dealings with the Palestinians and other Arab regimes.

"But every country has to follow its own interests at the end of the day," he says.

And Qatar's interests lie in developing its extensive fossil fuel reserves. The country has a two-thirds share of the North Dome gas field under the seabed of the Persian Gulf, the largest known gas reserve in the world. The remaining third lies in Iranian territorial waters. "Iran is a country of 80 million people sitting on top of us. There is an internal struggle there and it makes us nervous," says a Qatari political analyst, speaking on behalf of a country with just 750,000 inhabitants. "But the Iranians won't bother us when we have American bases on our soil."

Saddam Hussein is also regarded by Qatar's rulers as a potential threat. Qatar was struck by Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, and although officials welcome Iraq's decision to readmit United Nations weapons inspectors, there is little sympathy for Saddam Hussein's regime.

"Inherently, the system in Iraq is a threat to the Gulf," says the Qatari official. "It would be very foolish of us to rely on Saddam's goodwill."

But not all Qataris agree. For some, the prospect of an attack on Iraq is unwarranted aggression against an Arab country.

"Iraq is not a threat to Qatar, not even to Israel," says Muhammad Saleh al-Musfir, a professor of political science at Qatar University. "If he's allowed to stay in power, Saddam will spend the next 15 years rebuilding his country and not bothering anyone."

Some Qataris fear that instead of providing protection, hosting American forces on Qatari soil may invite attack, especially if the Al-Udeid air base plays a role in a strike against Iraq.

"This is the flip-side of Al-Udeid," says a Western diplomat. "If Saddam was left alone, it's unlikely he would attack Qatar."

Qatar has refused to disclose whether it will permit the US to stage military operations from Al-Udeid, saying that the subject is "premature."

"When the request comes, we would study it very carefully in light of our relationship," says the official.

But permission is a near certainty if the request is made, diplomats say. "It's almost inconceivable for the Americans to build this base and then not use it," says a European diplomat.

Residents of Doha, Qatar's capital, have grown accustomed to the regular roar of fighter jets and the deeper rumble of military transport aircraft in the sky above the city's glass and marble tower blocks and palm tree-lined highways. However, few American personnel are seen escaping Qatar's punishing heat and blowtorch winds in Doha's air-conditioned shopping malls or dining at the luxury hotels lining the bay. The troops have been restricted to the base since last Tuesday, part of a "routine security measure," according to a US military spokesman, although it coincided with the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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