By ROBERT BURNS
WASHINGTON – American forces in Turkey and two small Persian Gulf states are on a heightened state of alert because of new indications of terrorist threats in the region, senior defense officials said today.
One official, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity, described the move as precautionary.
“The reason it was done was the receipt of specific threats against U.S. forces in those areas, but from sources whose credibility is unknown,” the official said Monday in confirming a report first aired by CBS News.
U.S. troops in Bahrain and Qatar in the Persian Gulf were placed on the highest possible state of alert, and the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey has been placed on the second-highest level of alert, the official said today. The change in Bahrain and Qatar was made over the weekend; Incirlik has been on a heightened level of alert for more than a week, the official said.
Defense officials refused to discuss the nature of the threat that prompted the security concerns.
Figuring in the decision to raise the alert level for troops in those three areas was the bombing Oct. 12 of the USS Cole, which was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden when an explosion tore a hole in its hull. Seventeen sailors were killed and 39 were injured in what U.S. officials believe was the work of terrorists.
Given the surprise attack on the Cole, “this was thought to be the prudent thing to do,” the official said.
Bahrain is headquarters for the U.S. Central Command’s naval forces and for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. When the Cole was attacked, Central Command officials ordered all 5th Fleet ships out of port as a precaution against possible further attack, and they remained at sea last week.
The Incirlik air base in Turkey is headquarters for the U.S. and British air patrols that are enforcing a “no fly” zone over northern Iraq.
There is only a limited U.S. military presence in Qatar, with a small number of Air Force personnel stationed there. The United States also has an embassy in Qatar.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said in response to the attack on the Cole that U.S. forces would not retreat from the region, whose oil supplies are vital to the American economy. Besides Turkey, Bahrain and Qatar, the United States maintains forces in several other areas of the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman.
A U.S. aircraft carrier also is kept on permanent station in the Gulf.
Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander in chief of Central Command, is due to testify before Congress on Wednesday – along with other military and Defense Department officials – on the Cole tragedy.
American forces in the Persian Gulf region operate year-round under the threat of terrorism. In June 1996, a truck bomb ripped through a housing complex for U.S. Air Force personnel near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans.
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