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U.S. military to withdraw from Saudi base

By Wolf Blitzer

Osama bin Laden

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Washington (CNN) -- It's what Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives have been demanding since the end of the first Persian Gulf War a dozen years ago -- the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia.

This is how bin Laden put it during an interview with CNN in 1997.

"The country of the two holy places has in our religion a peculiarity of its own over the other Muslim countries. In our religion, it is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country."

Over the years, bin Laden and his fellow terrorists launched numerous strikes against U.S. targets with the stated design of getting American forces out of Saudi Arabia -- including the twin embassy bombings in East Africa; the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and, eventually, 9/11.

Ironically, even though bin Laden's al Qaeda movement and its Taliban backers have been crushed in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has now announced the huge U.S. Air Force operation at the Prince Sultan Airbase in Saudi Arabia will move on -- to neighboring Qatar we're told.

At a joint news conference today with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan, Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters, "By mutual agreement, the aircraft that had been involved will now be able to leave."

Rumsfeld says it was a decision jointly made with the Saudis. He points out that with the demise of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime, there's no longer any need to patrol Iraq's so-called southern no-fly zone.

But as was made clear to me when I visited the Prince Sultan base last December, the Saudis are extremely sensitive to the large-scale U.S. military presence there. Given their domestic political sensitivities, the Saudis pointedly refused to permit U.S. journalists to be embedded at the base during the Iraq war.

The Saudi royal leadership will clearly be relieved to say goodbye to the U.S. forces and warplanes -- now that the Iraqi threat is gone. Most of the U.S. forces are expected to be out of the Kingdom by the end of the summer.

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