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US seeks ‘fallback’ Saudi bases in case of Iranian escalation

US Army Central Command chief says military looking to operate from other bases during ‘a period of heightened risk’; no plan to shut down existing ones

A member of the US Air Force stands near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan air base in al-Kharj, central Saudi Arabia, February 20, 2020. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)
A member of the US Air Force stands near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan air base in al-Kharj, central Saudi Arabia, February 20, 2020. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

The US military is looking for fallback bases in Saudi Arabia to prevent its troops deployed there from becoming obvious targets in the event of tensions with Iran, a senior US military official said Thursday.

“We are not looking for new bases. I want to be clear on that,” said General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Army Central Command (CENTCOM), during a tour of the Middle East.

“What we would like to do, without shutting down these [current] bases …. is to have the ability to go to other bases to operate in a period of heightened risk,” he explained.

“These are things that any prudent military planner would want to do to increase their flexibility, to make it more difficult for the adversary to target them.”

The commander of US Central Command, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., briefs reporters on the status of operations in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, at the Pentagon, Washington, March 13, 2020. (DoD/Lisa Ferdinando)

The Wall Street Journal reported on plans for ports and air bases in the kingdom’s western desert, which the US military would seek to develop as positions to be used if war were to break out with Iran.

At the year’s end, the US military deployed the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to the region and had two B-52 bombers overfly the area.

The show of force was intended to deter Tehran from carrying out any attack on US forces on the first anniversary of the assassination by the United States of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

Adding to the tensions, Iran plans to restrict some UN nuclear agency inspections if the US does not lift its sanctions — imposed since 2018 — by February 21, under the terms of a bill adopted by its parliament in December.

Iran has a missile capability of up to 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), far enough to reach Israel and US military bases in the region. In January, Iran held a series of ballistic missile drills.

In this photo released on January 15, 2021, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, missiles are launched in a drill in Iran. (Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP)

On Monday, rockets struck outside Erbil international airport near where US forces are based in northern Iraq, killing one US-led coalition contractor and wounding at least eight people. No one immediately claimed responsibility.

Rocket attacks have frequently targeted the US presence in Baghdad, including the US Embassy, as well as convoys ferrying materials for the US-led coalition.

The frequency of attacks diminished late last year ahead of US President Joe Biden Biden’s inauguration. The US under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks.

Biden’s administration said Thursday it was ready to meet with Iranian officials under EU auspices to jumpstart diplomacy, and reversed Trump’s contention that the United Nations had imposed new sanctions on Iran.

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