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Mideast unrest puts US military access in jeopardy

No disruption to US military in Bahrain: Pentagon
Washington (AFP) Feb 18, 2011 - The Pentagon said Friday unrest in Bahrain has not disrupted the US Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters there or forced an evacuation of military families. Despite violence in the capital Manama with Bahraini security forces opening fire on anti-regime protesters, the naval headquarters was largely unaffected by the turmoil, spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan told reporters. "The protests are happening in an area away from the base," Lapan said. "But they are exercising caution and advising service members and families to stay away from the areas of protests." The headquarters, which has a huge fleet of warships in the Gulf region at its disposal, includes about 4,200 military personnel, he said.

Lapan said there were no plans to evacuate military families "at this point," but the Pentagon was following events in Bahrain and across the region, which has been shaken by popular uprisings that have toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. He also played down the potential threat posed by political upheaval to the military's crucial network of bases and agreements in North Africa and the Middle East. Lapan said the military always had a range of alternatives if one part of its network of bases or facilities fell through. He said that "as we've seen in other areas of the world where there's been disruption of whatever kind, we have alternatives." A US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon was closely monitoring events but was not bracing for catastrophe in Bahrain or elsewhere. "There's no discernible anti-Americanism voiced in these protests (in Bahrain)," the official told AFP. "They're dealing with sort of internal grievances."
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Feb 18, 2011
Popular unrest sweeping the Middle East highlights the US military's reliance on Arab regimes that offer privileged access to airfields and ports from Cairo to Qatar.

The military's dominant role in the region hinges on a web of agreements with friendly Arab states that allow American forces to patrol oil shipping routes in the Gulf, target Islamist militants and keep a watchful eye on arch-foe Iran.

Roughly 27,000 US forces are deployed at an array of bases and sites throughout the Gulf, along with a 50,000-strong contingent in Iraq and thousands more aboard naval ships, a US military official told AFP.

Major air fields in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, a large base in Kuwait and the US Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain serve as key points in an arc around Iran, ensuring American forces can move swiftly with heavy firepower.

In Bahrain, where security forces have cracked down on street protests after popular revolts ousted leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, about 4,000 Americans are stationed as part of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters.

With a flotilla of aircraft carriers, destroyers and amphibious ships at its disposal, the Fifth Fleet oversees an area spanning the Red Sea, the Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

The Pentagon on Friday played down the impact of the unrest in Bahrain and elsewhere, saying the violence had not disrupted the naval headquarters or other bases.

Former officials say losing the headquarters in Bahrain would be a setback but not a catastrophe, as the Navy could move the command post elsewhere.

No single base or agreement represents an Achilles heel, but taken as a whole, the network is a crucial linchpin for American military power, said David Aaron, a former diplomat and a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation think tank.

"What could be at stake here is an ability to have forces in the Gulf to reassure our allies out there, our partners, that they will be protected from Iran," he told AFP.

"If we lost all of those because of the turmoil that would be a blow to our ability to deter Iran."

Instead of Cold War-style bases housing large numbers of troops, the US military depends on overflight rights, the use of air bases in the western Gulf and special access to the strategic Suez Canal, where American naval ships receive top priority.

Losing swift passage through the canal or broad access to Egypt's air space "would either diminish our military mobility or sharply increase time and cost to overcome them," Aaron said.

US commanders are always looking to expand their network of partners in the region while working to accommodate regimes that prefer American forces keep a low profile to avoid stirring up popular resentment.

In 2003, the US military shut an air base and scaled back its presence in Saudi Arabia -- amid acrimony surrounding the Iraq invasion -- and shifted air operations to Qatar and Oman.

Some bases are shrouded in secrecy, including Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, which the Pentagon does not officially acknowledge. The Air Force reportedly uses the airfield to fly U2 spy plane missions and tanker aircraft for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since the September 11 attacks, air bases in Djibouti, Oman and elsewhere reportedly have provided vital platforms for launching drone missile strikes against Al-Qaeda operatives in nearby countries.

Last year, the United States reportedly moved Predator unmanned aircraft to a base at a Yemeni Red Sea port.

Egypt allows Iran warships to transit Suez: Mena
Cairo (AFP) Feb 18, 2011 - Egypt gave permission on Friday for Iranian warships to transit the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, state media reported, after Israel described the move as a "provocation."

"Egypt agreed to allow two Iranian warships to transit the Suez Canal," the official MENA news agency reported.

Canal officials say it would be the first time Iranian warships have made the passage since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

MENA reported that the request for the ship to pass said they were not carrying weapons or nuclear and chemical materials.

It is not known when the ships are expected to arrive at Port Said, the northern terminus of the canal on the Mediterranean. From there they are expected to sail to Syria.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has labelled the Iranian action as "hostile' and said Israel was closely monitoring the situation.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said an Iranian naval presence in the area was a "provocation that proves the self-confidence and cheek of the Iranians is growing from day to day".

Asked by AFP in Jerusalem to comment on the latest development, foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor recalled Lieberman's comments on Wednesday.

"We have nothing to add to the minister's statement," Palmor said on Friday. "It's still valid."

Earlier, an Egyptian foreign ministry official said the Iranian request was passed on to the defence ministry, which has to approve the passage of any warship through the canal.

His comments came a day after a canal official and a shipping agent said the request had been cancelled, at the prompting of the Egyptian government. An Iranian diplomat said administrative reasons where behind the delay.

Iran's official Fars new agency, quoting senior naval commanders, has said the ships are the 33,000-tonne refuelling and support vessel Kharg and the 1,500-tonne light patrol frigate Alvand, both British-built.

The Kharg has a crew of 250 and can carry up to three helicopters. The Alvand is armed with torpedos and anti-ship missiles.

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