Washington — Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday that the government of Saudi Arabia has never suggested that America should pull its military from a Saudi base that plays a key role in Afghanistan and is vital to deterring Iraq.
But the royal family has privately discussed the possibility of asking America to leave, said Saudi dissidents and U.S. military analysts. The Saudis are unlikely to request a pullout soon for fear of alienating the United States or appearing to cave in to Osama bin Laden's demands, the Saudis and military analysts said.
Publicly, both countries said their military relationship will continue because of a mutual desire to keep the Persian Gulf stable, despite obvious strains after the Sept. 11 attacks. Fifteen of 19 hijackers were Saudis, as is bin Laden.
Powell said he talks to Saudi officials every other day and "there has been no discussion" of America leaving.
President Bush "believes that the current arrangements are working and working well," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The president believes that our presence in the region has a very helpful and stabilizing effect."
The Saudi Embassy, quoting its ambassador, Prince Bandar, said Saudi Arabia "is pleased with the level of cooperation in all fields."
U.S. forces have been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the 1990 buildup to the Gulf War. The 5,000 troops now there are primarily at remote Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh, the capital.
From a new command center there, U.S. officers coordinate air operations in the region including missions flown over Afghanistan since October and missions enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq.
A pullout would hurt the ability to protect Saudi Arabia or Kuwait from invasion, and complicate any U.S. effort against Iraq, considered a possible future target in the war on terrorism.
Saudi support also has played a key role in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, said Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the war.
Air Force Secretary James Roche, loss of the Saudi base "would be difficult, unless we could replicate" the command center somewhere else.
But many Saudis, including in the royal family, are embarrassed that an outsider must defend their country, and also believe the U.S. policy to contain Iraq isn't working or needed, said Joseph McMillan, a former Pentagon official who oversaw Saudi relations.
"We think we're doing things for them," McMillan said. "They think they're doing things for us."
In addition, Saudi Arabia wants to improve its relations with Iran and thinks the U.S. presence hinders that. And it continues to disagree with the United States over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, observers said.