WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is close to an agreement with Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf, to establish the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command there, administration and Bahraini officials said yesterday.
In another development in the aftermath of the gulf war, U.S. officials said that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favored reversing policy to allow some U.S. ground forces to be permanently stationed in Saudi Arabia as part of any joint security arrangements in the region with Arab nations.
An official said that the U.S. contingent would be of brigade size, about 3,000 troops, and that its mission would include providing security for U.S. military equipment, which would be positioned so that it could be used by a division sent there in a crisis.
The contingent's mission also would include training with Arab forces and assisting them in responding to any military crises.
Such a recommendation might pose a political problem for President Bush, who along with Saudi officials has repeatedly said that all U.S. forces would withdraw from Saudi Arabia and that the United States was not seeking a permanent base in the region.
"Cheney feels and Powell feels that you have to leave something there," an official said. "If you can't keep the brigade there all the time, then you have to move it in and out on exercises, and that gets to be expensive."
Mr. Cheney and General Powell will not make their final recommendations to Bush until next month at the earliest and after they receive a detailed security plan now being prepared by Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, chief of the Central Command.
Moving command headquarters from its present site at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., to the Persian Gulf has been a goal sought by the Pentagon for years, but it was resisted by leaders of gulf nations, who preferred to keep any U.S. military presence over the horizon.
General Powell said in an interview Friday that an agreement was close. "We have always been anxious to have a forward headquarters in the region," he said, "and I think we may be able to get one this time, but I'm not prepared to say where it is or how large it is."
Speaking to reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, yesterday, General Schwarzkopf said, "There's a possibility we will be moving a forward headquarters element of the Central Command -- not the entirety" -- to a location "someplace over here on the gulf," according to the Associated Press.
An official in Washington said he expected the initial headquarters contingent of about 200 military personnel to take up permanent residence in Bahrain, with an eventual goal of moving the entire headquarters and closing the installation at MacDill.
Bahrain's information minister, Tariq al-Rahman al-Muayyid, said in a telephone interview that he did not want to "get ahead of the Pentagon" in making any announcements, and then said, "I'm giving you a clear commitment that we will support any decision taken based on the commitment the United States has made to the area.
"Bahrain has always shown a willingness to cooperate with the United States, with the Navy and with the Central Command, generally. We feel that as small as we are, we have a role to play and would like to contribute to the security of the region."
Bahrain's attitude represented a marked turnabout from last fall, when, in the midst of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, Bahraini officials said Saudi Arabia should become the home of the Central Command.
Mr. Muayyid, in his remarks, signaled that there had been some serious horse-trading among the gulf Arabs so that each country takes a role in providing support for a larger U.S. presence in the region.
In the past, open cooperation with the United States was shunned while secret cooperation increased -- especially with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which have provided storage for everything from jet fuel and spare parts to a 2,500-bed portable hospital.
Mr. Muayyid said the change in attitude toward the United States made it possible for the conservative gulf governments to openly form a security pact with Washington.
In the past, most Arab governments feared that such cooperation might lead to civil unrest from Shiite Muslims, among whom pro-Iranian fundamentalist sentiment has been strong.
Bahrain, connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway, has for years provided port access and other services for the U.S. Middle East force, the small Navy contingent that has patrolled the area since 1949.