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Re: Clinton Says U.S. Still Needs Troops In Saudi

Riyadh (MENO) 20 January 2002 - In an unprecedented bold criticism against U.S. foreign policy, Mohammad al-Oteibi, the former Saudi ambassador to Kabul, charged the United States with seeking to control Afghanistan and contain Pakistan’s nuclear program and Iran, as speculation grows that Washington could lose its most vital Arab support base.

Mohammad al-Oteibi said Osama bin Laden “is only a card in the game played by the United States and of which it has convinced the world to justify intervention in Afghanistan”.

“If the United States had wanted to arrest bin Laden, they could have done so easily without taking the trouble to launch this fanciful war ...they could have caught him long ago,” he said.

Mr. Oteibi told a London-based Saudi-owned newspaper, the response to the September 11 attacks in the United States was proposed “to impose [American] hegemony on [Afghanistan] and to set [Americans] up there to achieve their objectives” in Asia, the former envoy said.

These objectives included containing “the threat of the Pakistan nuclear program and Iran”, as well as “the exploitation of the riches of Afghanistan and the republics of central Asia”, Mr. Oteibi told reporters.

His comments followed reports that Saudi rulers are growing more uncomfortable with the U.S. military presence in their country and may soon ask the United States to pack and leave.

Sources in Saudi Arabia claim that senior Saudi leaders believe the U.S. has “overstayed its welcome” and that its continuing military presence is a liability for the Saudis in the Arab world. It said the Saudis might request a change after the war in Afghanistan ends.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton on a visit to Saudi Arabia told reporters today that the U.S. must continue to maintain its forces in Islam’s most holy land to ensure a rapid response to any regional threats.

“There are not so many (U.S. military) people here as to constitute a sort of occupation or anything like that. That’s not the purpose of it,” Clinton said.

“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 (the Saudis) have systems within every four-year period to review other things,” he later told reporters.

Currently, the United States makes regular use of Prince Sultan Air Base, south of the capital, Riyadh, where U.S. forces have maintained a presence for more than a decade. The air base played a crucial logistical role in the bombing of Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia depends greatly on the United States for its defense, but has found itself walking a tightrope with increasing popular uneasiness over U.S. troops in the birthplace of Islam.

The White House and the US State Department insist the military arrangement between the two countries is still working. The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said President George Bush “believes that our presence in the region has a very helpful and stabilizing effect”.

The US is reluctant to withdraw its 4500 troops from the Prince Sultan air base, because it could be perceived as a propaganda victory for bin Laden, who often protested at the presence of non-believers so near the main Muslim holy sites.

“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 today.

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