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By Mona Megalli
JEDDAH, Jan 20 (Reuters) - The United States needs to maintain its controversial troop presence in Saudi Arabia as in other strategic locations to ensure rapid response to regional threats, former President Bill Clinton said on Sunday.
Clinton, addressing the Jeddah Economic Forum, referred briefly to the presence of some 5,000 U.S. troops and thousands of American civilians on Saudi soil. He did not discuss the recent debate over whether the United States and Saudi Arabia were both reviewing a sharp reduction of military presence.
"There are not so many people here as to constitute a sort of occupation or anything like that. That's not the purpose of it," Clinton said.
But Clinton, who met Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh on Saturday, said he could not comment on any discussions between the current administration of President George W. Bush and the Saudi government.
"It is correct to say it is not just in this region. We have systems in the military, we review everything every four years and then they have systems within every four year period to review other things," he later told reporters.
The Washington Post has reported that Saudi rulers are growing more uncomfortable with the U.S. military presence in their country and may soon ask that it end.
The New York Times has said senior officials in Congress and at the Pentagon have called for a pullout of U.S. forces because of what they see as Saudi's tepid support for the anti-terror war and restrictions on U.S. military operations.
BIRTHPLACE OF ISLAM
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has said Bush wants to keep the U.S. military presence in the oil-rich kingdom and that he was not aware of any contact between Washington and Riyadh expressing a desire for the U.S. military to leave.
If asked to leave, the United States would no longer have regular use of Prince Sultan Air Base, where U.S. forces have maintained a presence for more than a decade.
Saudi Arabia depends on the United States for its defence, but has found itself walking a tightrope with increasing popular uneasiness over U.S. troops in the birthplace of Islam.
The United States insists all is well in the U.S.-Saudi relationship despite some signs of a strain after the September 11 attacks on U.S. cities, blamed by Washington on Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden has said attacks on the U.S. are aimed at forcing the U.S. military out of Saudi Arabia.
"Look at our forces in Asia and even in Latin America. It is a function of what we might be asked to do and being able to do it by having some people there physically present," Clinton said.
Clinton urged participants in the forum to confront and discuss differences with the United States, embrace Israel and promote energy alternatives to their main source of wealth, oil.
His speech was greeted with polite applause from members of delegates to the forum sponsored by several major Saudi banks and business groups, including the Saudi Binladin Group -- the family group that disowned bin Laden in the mid-1990s.
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