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Senators Consider Reviewing US Presence in Saudi Arabia - 2002-01-17

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee thinks the United States should reconsider its military presence in Saudi Arabia because of what he says is a lax Saudi attitude toward terrorism as well as Saudi restrictions placed on U.S. military personnel in the kingdom.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin thinks it's time the United States reviews its military relationship with Saudi Arabia, describing the environment for U.S. military personnel based there especially the thousand or so American women - as less than hospitable.

His comments come after the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force decided to take the Pentagon to court for ordering her to wear a traditional Muslim headscarf while traveling on official business around the Saudi kingdom. The Pentagon defends the practice as necessary in order not to offend local sensibilities in a country where Saudi women are veiled head to toe. In Islam, the headscarf signals modesty but has become a wardrobe requirement in some conservative Islamic countries.

Reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday reminded Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that the U.S. military has just fought a war to oust the Taleban in Afghanistan and has liberated women from being forced to wear the head to toe burka.

The comparison, he said, has not escaped him, but he believes the case of an American in uniform has more to do with the overall protection of U.S. forces. Mr. Rumsfeld said, "When you're in other countries, there are two issues. One is, you tend to behave in a way that is consistent with the rules of those countries to the extent that you want to be in that country. And second, a commander also has the issue of determining what is in the best interests of the force in terms of force protection."

But Senator Levin and other lawmakers are speaking out, calling the practice discriminatory towards American women. Republican Porter Goss is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman Goss said, "It is something that we have not obviously in any way condoned and it makes an awkward operating climate for us. But that in itself is not where my main concern with the Saudis is."

His main concern? What he considers a less than whole-hearted Saudi effort to combat terrorism and reign in Islamic radicals. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon September 11 were Saudis.

And, U.S. officials say the Saudi government has refused to fully cooperate with the investigation into the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers military barracks which killed 19 American airmen.

Mr. Goss continued, "I do share a sense of frustration that we could have had more help in some of the pursuit of some of the terrorist acts that have happened that have cost the lives of American men and women, whether in uniform or not, at Khobar Towers and places like that. And we could probably have a little bit more freedom of movement with our military."

The U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia includes other restrictions. The Saudi government will not permit the Pentagon to bomb targets in Afghanistan with aircraft taking off from an air base outside Riyadh. Still, despite all of these concerns, Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan,denies any strain in U.S.-Saudi relations, saying his government is fully committed to fighting terrorism. And the Bush administration says the Saudis have cooperated in every area where they've been asked to.