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Profile: U.S. Military Expands a Large Air Base in the Middle East

Morning Edition: August 21, 2002

U.S. Expands Airbase in Qatar



RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

US armed services are quietly preparing for the possibility of war against Iraq. In addition to drawing up proposals for invading the country, the US has been building up a major base in the region. NPR's Steve Inskeep reports.

STEVE INSKEEP reporting:

None of the evidence suggests that war is imminent. But military officials have said for months that they want to keep their options open. That's one reason the US has been expanding an airfield in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Military Analyst): This is a very large, very well-designed, nicely laid-out air base sitting out in the middle of the desert.

INSKEEP: John Pike is a military analyst who was offered one of the best unclassified views of that base. It's the view from overhead. Pike's organization published commercial satellite images on a Web site.

Mr. PIKE: You have a very large runway, 12-14,000 feet long depending on how you measure it. There are very elaborate alert ramps for fighter aircraft and two really amazing-looking hangars at each end of the runway. These are among the largest hangars, particularly for tactical aircraft, that we've seen. There's nothing else like them in the world that we're aware of.

INSKEEP: These pictures may not show quite as much as they seem since the military appears to have designed some buildings in deceptively odd shapes. But US officials do say they have been expanding their presence in Qatar. They say this base could serve as a substitute for US bases in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have said they will not allow their soil to be used for a strike against Iraq. Publicly available information says little about US intentions but does reveal something about US capabilities. That base in Qatar is just one part of an infrastructure the US has been building in the region for years. If the United States decided on a comparatively small attack, the weapons and equipment are already in place. Since the Persian Gulf War, the US has stored hundreds of tanks and armored tanks in the region. With just a few days' notice, US troops can be flown in to man them. US Navy ships based in the Indian Ocean carry enough material to equip roughly 25,000 soldiers and Marines. More material is stored on land, and that's all in addition to thousands of fully equipped troops already based in the region.

President Bush insists he has made no decisions about whether to send those soldiers to war, and his advisers continue sending mixed signals. Speaking to reporters yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he believes members of the al-Qaeda network are hiding in Iraq and he suggested that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein must be supporting them.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): It's very hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what's taking place in the country.

INSKEEP: Yet, Secretary Rumsfeld refused to say if he has any hard evidence of Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda. And in the same press conference, the secretary grew annoyed. Though President Bush has repeatedly called for the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld complained that reporters are focusing `excessively,' he said, `on Iraq.'

Sec. RUMSFELD: I find that the debate and the discussion of the national dialogue, the international dialogue is a little out of balance and...

Unidentified Man #1: Sir, the administration itself put Iraq on the front burner and turned up the heat.

Unidentified Man #2: The president talks about it every day.

Unidentified Man #1: And now you're asking...

Sec. RUMSFELD: That's fine. He did give a speech on the `axis of evil.' I think it was a good speech. I think it will proved to have had a beneficial effect for the people in all three of those countries when we look back a decade from now.

INSKEEP: Bush administration officials suggest they are not rushing to launch a pre-emptive strike. And if they decided on a full-scale invasion, they might not be able to rush. Military officials say that despite the weapons they've stored in the region, a major invasion could require much more. One military official points to that commercial satellite imagery that already gives a partial picture of US deployments. The official says that if the US begins a major buildup, there is no way you're not going to know about it. Steve Inskeep, NPR News, the Pentagon.

MONTAGNE: The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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