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Cohen: U.S.-Kuwait Ties 'Have Never Been Stronger'

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

RIYIDH, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 20, 2000 – Defense Secretary William S. Cohen visited Kuwait and Saudi Arabia Nov. 19 as part of his seven-day Mideast trip.

He is making his ninth Middle East journey to discuss bilateral security issues and reaffirm defense commitments with officials in the region. Prior to visiting Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Cohen had stopped at Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, with Israel, Egypt and Jordan still on his schedule.

"The United States is committed to protecting its friends while working with our partners for a peaceful, prosperous and stable region," said Cohen at a Nov. 19 press conference at Kuwait City International Airport. Security relations between Kuwait and the United States "have never been stronger," he added.

"As long as our partners believe the United States forces are needed to defend the region, we will stay," Cohen said. "Terrorists will not be able to drive us out."

Cohen also discussed Kuwaiti soldiers and citizens who've been reported missing since the end of the Gulf War, Kuwaiti military purchases, the U.S. presidential election, the possibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Iraq and UN sanctions.

In recent weeks Kuwaiti officials arrested several people suspected of plotting to blow up U.S. assets in the region. At least four of the six suspects led authorities to large amounts of explosives, and are being questioned by state prosecutors pending charges, according to Kuwaiti officials. Cohen said the issue is the Kuwaitis' to investigate and resolve.

U.S. officials said Kuwait plans to upgrade its defense capability by purchasing 16 Apache Longbow helicopters for $640 million. Kuwait is also seeking to buy a commercially procured intelligence, command and control system for $1.2 billion, said U.S. officials. Kuwait also plans to purchase four C-130 cargo aircraft and two KC-130 aerial refueling tankers for $400 million, officials noted.

"Our military force in Kuwait has increased and Kuwait has improved the readiness of its forces," Cohen said. "Kuwaiti naval and coast guard forces are working successfully to protect the country's coastline and interdict the smugglers trying to evade United Nations' sanctions against Iraq.

"The containment policy is working and will continue as long as Saddam Hussein poses a threat to his neighbors and to his own people," he added.

Cohen said an important part of American commitment to security in the Middle East involves continuing efforts to secure a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. "The resumption of peace talks is the only way to reduce the tension that could destabilize the entire region," he said.

Security is a very important issue to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia accepted the fleeing Kuwaiti royal family and some 400,000 refugees escaping Saddam Hussein's armies. The next year, the Saudis allowed coalition forces, to include more than 500,000 U.S. troops, to assemble on their soil. The U.S. and coalition forces launched a counter attack, known as Operation Desert Storm, that pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait.

A lingering dilemma from the Persian Gulf War facing Kuwait involves some 6,000-service members and civilians discovered missing after defeated Iraqi forces retreated from Kuwaiti territory in 1991, said Kuwaiti officials at the press briefing. Iraq has not yet released any details about the missing people.

Cohen noted "it is very clear that the international community condemned what Iraq did by invading Kuwait, destroying large segments of the city, killing many people, taking prisoners and not accounting for those missing in action."

Yet, many in the Arab world would like to see UN sanctions leveled against Saddam end, not for his benefit, but for the benefit of Iraq's people who have suffered from the sanctions. Such humanitarianism in commendable, Cohen said, but probably unnecessary since Iraq now is required to use most of its oil revenues to purchase food and medical supplies for its people as part of the UN's oil for food program. Lifting the sanctions would also give victory to Saddam Hussein, he added.

"Saddam has violated the UN Security Council resolutions, he has evicted and thrown out the UN inspectors, and now he asks for lifting of the sanctions," Cohen said. "If the sanctions were to be lifted under these circumstances, where there has been non-compliance, and absolute flouting of the rule of law, then it would undermine the credibility of the United Nations, itself."

After the Kuwait City press conference, the defense secretary flew on to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, and other notable Saudi royal family and ministers. Saudi Arabia, with 26 percent of the world's proven oil reserves (Kuwait has 10 percent of proven oil reserves), is the world's largest oil supplier.

A senior DoD official noted the Saudis are "very pleased" with the relationship between their country and the United States. "The Saudis are confident," the senior official said, that the U.S. will continue to be strongly engaged in the Middle East region for the foreseeable future.

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