Qatar stands by US as war looms

The US military begins its Internal Look exercise in Qatar, as Iraq underwent UN inspection.

It seems a perfect match.

At a time when the US is preparing to make war against Iraq, and some of its traditional friends in the Middle East are reluctant to provide staging areas, a small country steps forward to offer the Americans the use of the facilities they need.

This country - the mitten-shaped state of Qatar, a peninsula that pokes into the Persian Gulf from the east coast of the Arabian peninsula - has the world's third-largest reserves of natural gas, resources that are being exploited by American companies. Qatar is ruled by an autocratic emir, but one who seems to appreciate democracy, freedom of speech, and women's rights.

This relationship provides tiny Qatar with the biggest, most powerful friend there is. It provides the US with well-situated military facilities - from a government that seems to embrace some of the same values America does. For American policymakers and military planners, this is the stuff that dreams are made of.

The US-Qatari bond has been consummated without any apparent domestic discord. But behind the marriage-of-convenience bonhomie, some Qataris question the need for an extensive American military presence and caution that the emir's reforms are superficial.

Yesterday the US military's Central Command, which would run the US war effort against Iraq, initiated a secretive computer-assisted war game from a high-tech movable headquarters it has recently set up in Qatar. The exercise, dubbed "Internal Look," is intended to allow Central Command to test how well it can guide air, sea and land forces in a time of war.

It is a low-key affair - journalists are banned from the base where Gen. Tommy Franks and hundreds of other senior Central Command officials are engaged in the exercise - but it is a crystallizing moment for Qatar, one that demonstrates the country's growing dependence on the US.

Although it is not played out on television or in newspapers, the ties with the US are a matter of debate in Qatar.

To some Qataris, the relationship is logical, even inevitable. Surrounded by bigger states - Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia - it makes sense to welcome the Americans. "I don't see any other way to do it," says Hassan al-Ansari, a historian at the University of Qatar.

"We don't need this," counters another Qatari, resplendent in his white headdress and floor-length white tunic. Interviewed in an equally white and resplendent mall in Doha, the capital, the man adds: "We can solve our problems by ourselves." He declined to be identified.

Qataris have been courting a significant US military presence since the mid-1990s. In August 2000 the US opened a "pre- positioning" facility here - a vast storage area for tanks and other equipment - that is designed to allow the US to respond militarily to a crisis in the Middle East in as little as four days.

"Qataris are bound and determined to be our best friend in the Gulf - within their resources and reach," says Patrick Theros, a former US ambassador to Qatar who now runs the US-Qatar Business Council from offices in Maclean, Va.

Another former US ambassador to Qatar, Kenton Keith, praises the country's values. "Qatar is a state of really rather astonishing liberal tendencies for that region," he says.

In some ways, Qatar is much like the other family-business kingdoms of the Gulf: The religion is Islam, the dominant industry is energy, the government is centered on a ruling clan. Oil wealth has enabled an indigenous elite to entice vast numbers of foreigners to do everything from serve in the Army to clean the streets.

Qatar has a population of about 750,000, but only 150,000 are Qatari citizens. The rest are imported workers, mainly from South and Southeast Asia.

But in other ways, Qatar stands out. It is the home of the Al Jazeera satellite channel, which has brought an unprecedented degree of press scrutiny and popular debate to the Arab world.

Qatari women work, drive, and vote. The emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, allowed elections for a municipal advisory council in 1999 and is reviewing the draft of a new Constitution that should pave the way to an elected parliament in a few years.

"You have, at the top, a person who actually believes in these reforms" says Mr. Ansari, referring to Sheikh Hamad. "There is no pressure on him to produce all this stuff."

Khalid al-Khater, a retired engineer and self-described "concerned citizen" who writes newspaper columns, says the government is under pressure to reform in order to keep pace with a modernizing world. But, he adds, "There is no democracy here. All the action the government has taken is for outside consumption."

Even Ansari acknowledges, "It will make our relationship much easier with the US if we continue to have these reforms."

Mr. Khater says the government has refused to sanction various "civil society" groups with which he has been involved: an association of engineers and groups concerned with the environment, consumer protection, and the rights of Palestinians. Although a law allows such groups, Khater says the government forbids them because they "come too close to being political."

Khater supports an expanded US role, but would like to see more genuine reforms. But an Arab expatriate with a decade of experience in Qatar says the two cannot go hand in hand: "If democracy comes to Qatar, the Americans will not be allowed to stay one minute because there is no grassroots support," he avers, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Qatari interviewed at the mall - not 10 yards from a bustling Starbucks - says no public debate is possible on the American military role. "We don't have that kind of freedom," he says.

"The US is not protecting the Qatari people," he adds; "it is protecting the royal family."

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