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IN THE NEWS - May 3, 2003: American Troops to Leave Saudi Arabia - 2003-05-05

This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program IN THE NEWS.

The United States says it will withdraw all combat forces from Saudi Arabia by the end of August. American officials will move the troops and military aircraft from Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Air Base to nearby Qatar.

American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz made the announcement Tuesday at a news conference in Riyadh. They said American forces can now leave Saudi Arabia because Iraq is no longer a threat to the area.

Mister Rumsfeld said the withdrawal is part of an effort to reposition American forces in the Persian Gulf area, following the military victory in Iraq. The United States and Saudi Arabia agreed to the withdrawal. The two countries say they plan to continue close military relations. About four-hundred American troops will remain in Saudi Arabia to train the Saudi military.

The withdrawal began Monday. The United States moved its major air operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base to the al-Udeid air base in Qatar. American commanders used both bases to lead the air war over Iraq.

The withdrawal of about ten-thousand American troops is designed to ease tensions. Saudi Arabia has Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. Many Muslims oppose the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. They say non-Muslims should not be welcome in land that is holy to Muslims. Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, has noted the American military presence in Saudi Arabia. He said this was a reason for the attacks against the United States on September eleventh, two-thousand-one.

The American military presence in Saudi Arabia began after the Persian Gulf war in nineteen-ninety-one. The Prince Sultan Air Base was used for American planes guarding the area over southern Iraq where Iraqi military flights were banned.

However, tensions between the Saudis and Americans have increased over the years. Twenty-four American soldiers died in two separate terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in nineteen-ninety-five and nineteen-ninety-six. Also, fifteen of the nineteen hijackers in the September eleventh terrorist attacks were identified as Saudi citizens.

Saudi rulers quietly agreed to America’s requests for support during the recent military campaign in Iraq. But they tried to suppress the news that they let Americans use their bases. The war was unpopular among the Saudi people.

American officials say the military withdrawal will help ease political pressure on the Saudi royal family. Saudi rulers have faced demands from outside and inside the country to reform the country’s political and educational system. Saudi officials said the withdrawal of American soldiers would clear the way for a series of democratic reforms.

This VOA Special English program, IN THE NEWS, was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.