WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee wants the United States to close the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia and shift its air operation to another base in the region, possibly Bahrain.
"The situation at the Saudi base seems very unclear. We may need to move that base," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., at a breakfast meeting with reporters. "I have an unease about our presence in Saudi Arabia. I think we may be able to find a place where we are much more welcomed openly."
Last fall, according to news reports, the Saudi government denied the United States permission to use Prince Sultan Air Base to command the air war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon denied that was the case and said it was satisfied with the cooperation from that government. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has adopted an unwavering policy of not describing other countries' support for the U.S. war on terrorism because of the political difficulty it can cause for the governments.
Suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden has made the expulsion of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia a central theme in his exhortations against that government.
Levin said behind the scenes, the Saudi government is no more welcoming than it behaves publicly.
"I do think there is a real problem when we are told by a country, presumably an ally, doesn't want us to be seen," he said. "They act as though somehow or other they are doing us a favor."
The U.S. military has permanently manned bases in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War, when it was invited into the country by King Fahd to protect it from the advancing Iraqi army.
Since 1991, the U.S. military has been enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq out of Saudi Arabia. U.S. service personnel were based in downtown Dharan until 1996, when a truck bomb was detonated near a dormitory known as Khobar Towers, killing 19 and wounded nearly 500 others.
For security reasons, the military soon decamped to Prince Sultan Air Base, a desert airstrip about 50 miles from Riyadh. About 4,600 service members serve in Saudi Arabia at any one time, with as many as 25,000 Americans cycling through the base in a single year.
Nevertheless, the Saudi government officially denies the presence of American forces in the increasingly restive country; if pressed, government officials will say only that "U.N." forces are represented in the country. The no-fly zones were tacitly approved by the U.N. Security Council.
Levin cites a number of concerns he has with Saudi Arabia, beginning with the fact that as many as a dozen of the Sept. 11 terrorists were Saudi citizens, according to the FBI.
"What really troubles me the fact that so more of those fighters are Saudis. ... We're not sure they want you there," Levin said.
Levin's chief concern, however, may be that the Saudi government funds the Islamic religious schools known as madrassas where some of the most radical Muslims are trained. Saudi-funded madrassas in Pakistan were a breeding ground for the Taliban.
Noting that many Muslim countries have restrictive customs that affect U.S. service members, Levin said the madrassas tip the balance sheet for him against Saudi Arabia.
"What makes it a little different ... is the support that comes from that country for the madrassas," he said. "I think if the Saudi government wanted (it could) prevent that from happening."
The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, denied that charge. "The kingdom of Saudi Arabia prohibits the teaching of hatred and violence. Charges that Saudi Arabia funds such schools are baseless ... and lack an understanding of our culture, society and laws."
"Our two nations share the goal of peace. I have great respect for Sen. Levin, but I am surprised by his statements," said Bandar. "If he has any concerns, I urge him to visit Saudi Arabia and personally assess the extent of cooperation and support we are giving the international coalition."
Levin just returned from a trip to the region and said he was told by Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose country has been home to 1,000 U.S. soldiers for several months, that the military is welcomed there.
"His attitude was 'thank God you are doing what you are doing ...we're not doing you a favor, you are doing us a favor, you are doing the world a favor in going after terrorism.' You don't get that sense in Saudi Arabia. They are acting like they are doing us a favor."
The Justice Department has had its own frustrations with the Saudi government. In 1995, a terrorist bombing killed four Americans working in the Saudi capital with the Saudi National Guard. The Saudi courts refused to allow the FBI to interview the bombers, who may have had ties to Osama bin Laden. The men were beheaded. The government also refused to allow the FBI to interrogate suspects and review evidence in the Khobar Towers bombing.
An American grand jury in June 2001 handed down indictments against the Dhahran terrorists, about five of whom sit in Saudi jails, according to the Justice Department. The Saudi government has thus far refused to extradite the men to stand trial in the United States.
Levin also mentioned as distasteful the restrictive policies U.S. military personnel must follow, particularly females.
In December, the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the Air Force, Lt. Col. Martha McSally, filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department which -- in deference to local Muslim custom -- requires women to wear long robes and head scarves when they leave the base. No such garb is required for men, and the State Department only requires that its female employees dress conservatively in the country.
"Our women are not comfortable (there.) I hope that means none of us is comfortable," Levin said. "Some of the restrictions the Saudis place on us are unappealing. There may be places in the area we can have greater use with out restrictions."
U.S. service members are prohibited from allowing the members of the opposite sex to visit their tents, restricted to sunbathing except in the immediate area of their tent, and they must be fully dressed when outside their tents at all times, according to U.S. Central Command.
About 1,000 U.S. military members, mostly Navy, are currently serving in Bahrain.