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Tuesday, April 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rumsfeld says U.S. won't stay in Iraq

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday the United States is unlikely to seek any permanent or long-term bases in Iraq because U.S. basing arrangements with other countries in the region are sufficient.

While stressing that discussion of future U.S. military ties with Iraq is premature in the absence of a new Iraqi government, Rumsfeld appeared intent on knocking down the idea of an indefinite U.S. military presence in Iraq. A New York Times report Sunday suggested that among the options the administration is considering is permanent U.S. access to four Iraqi airfields.

"It's flat false," he said.

"I have never, that I can recall, heard the subject of a permanent base in Iraq discussed in any meeting," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference. "The likelihood of it seems to me to be so low that it does not surprise me that it's never been discussed in my presence — to my knowledge."

He added later that his answer would be the same if "long-term" were substituted for "permanent."

The kind of military relationship that the United States will establish with the new Iraqi leadership is a particularly sensitive subject for the Bush administration, which has insisted that U.S. troops wouldn't become an occupying force.

Airfields are of particular interest to Pentagon officials as a means of putting U.S. forces quickly into a region during a crisis. Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the Air Force has gained permission to operate in a number of the former Soviet states of eastern Europe and Central Asia, and has expanded operations in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

In Iraq, U.S. military planes are using four airfields to ferry humanitarian supplies and run reconnaissance patrols: at the international airport outside Baghdad; at Tallil, near Nasiriyah in the south; at an airstrip called H-1 in western Iraq; and at Bashur in the Kurdish-controlled north.

Rumsfeld said the existence of other U.S. basing options in the Persian Gulf region probably would remove the need for a U.S. presence in Iraq.

"It's not like we need a new place," he said. "We have plenty of friends and plenty of ability to work with them, and have locations for things that help to contribute to stability in the region."

Pentagon authorities have made clear a desire to begin shrinking the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia in the wake of the Iraq war to save money and reduce the military's vulnerability to terrorist attack.

Already, the United States has withdrawn nearly all of its 50 attack and support airplanes from Turkey's Incirlik air base, which had been used to enforce a "no-fly" zone over northern Iraq since 1991. Many expect the Pentagon to reduce its air fleet in Saudi Arabia after the dissolution of the "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq.

Asked his thoughts on the future U.S. military presence in the Middle East, Rumsfeld said he has "something in mind" but declined to disclose it until he can discuss it further with governments in the region. He said he's planning a trip to the area in the near future.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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