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Qatar to Allow US Airbase Upgrades in Event of War

The United States and the Gulf state of Qatar have signed an agreement providing for upgrades to facilities at a key air base that could be used by American forces in the event of a war with Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed the agreement for the United States soon after arriving in the Qatari capital of Doha from a visit to the Horn of Africa.

The agreement is a largely technical one, but Mr. Rumsfeld says it underscores the importance of defense cooperation between the United States and Qatar and will provide for what he terms improved military readiness.

Speaking to reporters after talks with Qatar's Foreign Minister, Mr. Rumsfeld gave few details. But he insists the agreement has nothing to do with the latest international confrontation with Iraq. He says it has been under discussion for some time.

A senior U.S. defense official tells VOA the agreement covers al-Udeid air base, which has the longest runway in the Gulf region at nearly 5,000 meters in length.

The official says the accord covers new construction at the base, some of it designed to improve the quality of life for the estimated three thousand U.S. military personnel now stationed there. It also specifies which upgrade expenses will be paid for by the United States and which by Qatar.

The United States has been using al-Udeid since 1992 under an earlier defense pact. Tanker aircraft flew out of the base to refuel bombers and fighters during missions in Afghanistan beginning late last year.

In addition to signing the agreement, Mr. Rumsfeld is in Qatar to view a U.S. led war game, called "Internal Look." It is not a field exercise involving ground, naval or air combat forces but rather a computer driven command, control and communications exercise. It is widely viewed as preparation for a possible war with Iraq.

General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. military's Central Command, which covers the Gulf region, is in Qatar along with his headquarters staff for the week long event.

Mr. Rumsfeld tells reporters General Franks has informed him the exercise is going smoothly.

The U.S. Defense Secretary arrived in Qatar from the tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, where he told several hundred U.S. troops the anti-terror campaign has moved to that remote region because, in his words, "we need to be where the action is."

Djibouti is close to both Yemen and Somalia, countries where terrorists have been active.

Reporters were allowed for the first time onto the grounds of Camp LeMonier, a former French Air Base adjacent to Djibouti's main civilian airport. They could see Special Operations aircraft but military officials declined to discuss any activities being conducted by the secretive and elite Special Operations forces in Djibouti.

The Central Intelligence Agency is also reported to be using Djibouti to operate unmanned Predator drone aircraft on reconnaissance and attack missions like one in Yemen that killed a key al-Qaida operative. However the drones were not visible.

U.S. forces first arrived in Djibouti last June. There are now some 900 personnel there, not counting the nearly 2,000 offshore in amphibious vessels.

Mr. Rumsfeld visited Djibouti after earlier stops in Eritrea and Ethiopia, both of which pledged closer cooperation with the United States in the global war on terrorism.