Saudi prince discusses plans to expand army WAR IN THE GULF

February 09, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Offering a glimpse at possible postwar security arrangements, Saudi Arabia's military commander suggested yesterday that the kingdom would try to overcome the need for U.S. troops by expanding its armed forces, a step the government has previously rejected.

Prince Khalid bin Sultan, commander of all Arab forces in the anti-Iraq coalition, also hinted at his country's unease about Arabs battling Arabs in the war and at the prospect of the intensifying fighting in a ground assault.

Prince Khalid, a lieutenant general, said that Saudi troops would fight inside Iraq if necessary but that all planning was directed at having the conflict end in Kuwait. He appealed for Iraqi soldiers to surrender and pledged that Saudi Arabia would seek to restore friendly relations with Iraq after the war.

"We are determined that the countries of the Middle East be able to live in peace in relation to each other," he told reporters. "Our goal is not only to free Kuwait but to bring Iraq back into the international arena."

Prince Khalid spoke shortly before the arrival in Saudi Arabia of U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are scheduled to to consult with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander, as part of their deliberations on the need and timing for a possible ground offensive.

With or without a ground war, Prince Khalid held out little hope that Iraqis would -- or could -- surrender in larger numbers. Iraqi prisoners of war, he said, reported the existence of an "execution battalion," a unit assigned to kill deserters.

POWs say Iraqi troops are further intimidated by the presence of informers in most units, the prince reported. The practice has been indirectly confirmed by a Navy commander who said Iraqis captured from oil platforms told him an officer had been assigned to their unit for the sole purpose of preventing their desertion.

"Most of them want to come, but they cannot trust whom to tell in their units," Prince Khalid said.

According to the prince, 418 Iraqis defected between Aug. 2, the FTC day Iraq overran Kuwait, and the beginning of the war, on Jan. 17, and are regarded as "military refugees." Since fighting began, an additional 936 Iraqis have surrendered or been captured.

Six Iraqis surrendered yesterday, according to U.S. commanders, by walking into Saudi Arabia.

Prince Khalid made clear that Saudi Arabia has already concluded that it will need a larger military establishment, whatever the fate of Iraq. "We are determined to make our armed forces bigger and better," he said. "There have been a lot of lessons."

A large expansion could pose problems for the United States, the supplier preferred by the Saudis. Secretary of States James A. Baker III pledged this week that the Bush administration would make postwar efforts to slow the arms race in the Middle East, while major Saudi purchases are also likely to raise opposition from Israel.

Until the war, Saudi Arabia purposely kept its armed forces small to prevent the military from becoming a threat to the monarchy. The kingdom's army and air force have a combined total of about 65,000 men, responsible for defending a land area larger than all of Western Europe.

An additional 25,000 men form the National Guard, a police force providing security for oil fields and members of the royal family.

After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Saudi officials predicted that the army would be expanded to a permanent force of about 150,000, with at least an equal number of trained reserves. Officials also forecast that the kingdom would agree to participate in a multinational Islamic force.

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