Discussion With Leaders, Troops Highlight Mideast Trip
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
SIGONELLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Italy, Oct. 18, 1999 Defense Secretary William S. Cohen will observe U.S. troops participating in Exercise Bright Star and visit sailors involved with Operation Southern Watch during his nine-day visit to Southwest Asia.
Cohen will also meet with leaders of the 10 nations he will visit. The trip will be an opportunity for Cohen to consult with the allies in the region on what is important to them.
During his visit he will speak with the leaders on regional issues including the cooperative defense initiative. The initiative, announced in February, focuses on defense cooperation in such areas as shared early warning and theater missile defense.
Cohen will also meet U.S. Central Command chief Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni. Cohen said he expects no major changes in the number or distribution of U.S. forces in Central Command. "We think we have it about right," Cohen said.
He said he will also talk about the Middle East peace process, and about the ongoing crisis in Pakistan. Cohen said he has not met Pakistani coup leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf. "I will surely ask what our allies in the region think about it," he said.
In Egypt, the secretary will observe an amphibious landing near Alexandria. The landing will be a highlight of the Bright Star exercises.
More than 65,000 service members from 11 countries will take part in Bright Star. It is the largest exercise held in the Central Command area.
A senior defense official said Bright Star has become a very effective coalition training ground. In addition to the U.S. and Egypt, the exercise has service members from the Netherlands, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, France, Greece, Britain, Germany, Italy and Kuwait. "It's become a very effective exercise to have the countries of the region work together as well as countries outside," said the official. "So the virtue of going to Bright Star is not only from a U.S.-only perspective, but from a multinational coalition perspective."
Cohen will also visit with sailors and Marines enforcing the Southern No-fly Zone over Iraq. He will helicopter to the aircraft carrier USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf, observe flight operations and speak to the crew.
Cohen will consult with Gulf allies on policies toward Iraq. He disagrees with charges that U.S. policy towards Iraq is hitting a dead end. He said the U.S. policy toward Iraq is one of containment, and thanks to that policy Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "is not a threat to his neighbors," Cohen said.
Cohen agreed the situation with Iraq is "frustrating, but we must stay the course as long as necessary," he said. He said the suffering in Iraq is not caused by the U.N. sanctions against the country, but rather by Saddam Hussein himself. Since 1997, Iraq has had a food-for-oil program. Under the program, Iraq can buy food and other humanitarian supplies. In the north of Iraq, where the U.N. controls distribution of the supplies, the child mortality rate has returned to pre- Gulf War levels, Cohen said. In the south, where Hussein holds sway, child mortality rates are high.
Cohen's trip will take him to Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Oman and Israel.