By David Teather and Ian TraynorGuardian
April 21, 2003
The US is planning a long-term military presence in Iraq, in a move which will dramatically extend American power in the region and spread dismay and fear among its opponents across the Arab world.
According to reports, the Pentagon intends to retain four military bases in Iraq after the invasion force withdraws. It is already using the bases to support continuing operations against pockets of resistance. They are at the international airport near Baghdad, at Talil; close to the city of Nassiriya in the south; at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert; and at the Bashur airfield in the Kurdish north.
A senior administration official told the New York Times: "There will be some kind of a long term defence relationship with Iraq, similar to Afghanistan. The scope of that has yet to be defined - whether it will be full-up operational bases, smaller forward operating bases or just plain access."
The plans would be eyed nervously by neighbouring Syria and by Iran, a member of President George Bush's "axis of evil", now facing American-backed governments along two sides of its border. "This is a nightmare unfolding for both Syria and Iran," Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of Warwick, said.
A sign that Syria may be trying to halt the deterioration in its links with the US came at the weekend when Saddam's son-in-law and member of his inner circle, Jamal Mustafa Sultan Abdullah al-Tikriti, returned from Damascus to surrender to the Iraqi National Congress in Baghdad. The Bush administration has warned Syria not to harbour members of Saddam's regime. It claims Syria also sponsors terrorism.
A permanent US military foothold in Iraq would profoundly change the political make-up of the Middle East. Part of its attraction is that it would offer the US an alternative to Saudi Arabia, which was reluctant to cooperate on Iraq and is viewed by American officials as a breeding ground for terrorism after the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were from the kingdom.
The plans could leave the White House open to the charges of empire-building that it has been so desperate to avoid. As in Afghanistan, it is likely to keep the number of deployed troops to a minimum with the guarantee of access to the bases should they be needed. But it is a difficult balance to achieve. If the US is seen to be deepening its presence in the region it could spur on Islamist extremists. "This will be an alarming step to most of the Middle East," said Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi. "It seems they want to control the whole region."
The Pentagon declined to comment yesterday but the bases are expected to be accompanied by a reduction in the US military presence in Saudi Arabia. Marcus Corbin, of the Centre for Defence Information in Washington, said he expected the Pentagon to try to keep its options open in Saudi Arabia, but to have a much smaller and less visible presence there. The Pentagon has also been reducing its presence in Turkey.
With Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran as neighbours, Iraq is strategically in a prime location. "Geographically, Iraq is ideal for the Americans," Mr Dodge said.
The bases plan comes in addition to the vast expansion of the US military which has taken place elsewhere across the Middle East and central Asia in the past two years, most of it in Muslim states
Washington's success in persuading countries from Romania to Kyrgyzstan to host its military bases is a reflection of the new era ushered in by September 11. "The military always likes to have bases and the ability to move to bases at short notice. What's new is the opportunities," said Mr Corbin.
The establishment of US military bases would increase the pressure on Syria to fall into line with the Americans.
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