THE PREVENTABLE DEATHS of 19 American servicemen were needed to wrest Saudi approval for security measures at the Khobar Towers apartments in Dhahran that should have been made last year. The perimeter will be pushed from 30 to 400 feet away, enough to have foiled the truck bomb that exploded last Tuesday.
Much is heard about Saudi sensitivities and the need to tread cautiously with the strange royal house that runs the world's largest oil reserve as a family property. It is denounced by extremists as too beholden to the secular U.S. while guarding the sacred sites of Islam. Just stationing 5,000 American service personnel to protect Saudi Arabia from external enemies weakens it against internal ones.
But the U.S. has sensitivities, too. The wellbeing of its young armed forces personnel looms large among them. So it is that two Saudi refusals of help to U.S. security concerns could poison this relationship.
After a terrorist bomb took five American lives in Riyadh last November, the U.S. twice requested that the Khobar Towers perimeter be pushed out to 400 feet. Saudi authorities had other land use priorities. Last Tuesday's terror bomb was 80 feet from the structure. Now, the U.S. request is granted.
The Saudi regime also refused to allow U.S. intelligence or law enforcement officers to interview the four Saudi defendants said to have confessed to the November bombing. The defendants were beheaded May 31, so that U.S. agencies could learn nothing of their associations. Internal foes of the Saudi regime warned that these executions would bring reprisals against Americans.
Now the Defense Department reports a pledge of "complete cooperation" from King Fahd, who granted Defense Secretary William J. Perry a midnight interview. The playboy king, 74 and a stroke victim, had turned authority over to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah. Mr. Perry's interview is evidence that the king is still lucid. Meanwhile, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is calling for Secretary Perry's head and promising hearings by his Senate Intelligence Committee into the Saudi recalcitrance.
The U.S. fought a costly war in 1991, partly to rescue Kuwait but also to protect Saudi Arabia. For American troops to remain to protect this haughty but militarily weak country from its voracious neighbors, the American people will require convincing reassurance that they have better protection than has been the case.
Pub Date: 7/02/96