US pulls Patriot missiles, fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia amid dispute

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. is pulling two Patriot missile batteries and some fighter aircraft out of Saudi Arabia, an American official said Thursday, amid tensions between the kingdom and the Trump administration over oil production.

The official said the decision removes two batteries that were guarding oil facilities in Saudi Arabia but leaves two Patriot batteries at Prince Sultan Air Base in the Saudi desert, along with other air defense systems and jet fighters.

The decision scales back the American presence in Saudi Arabia just months after the Pentagon began a military buildup there to counter threats from Iran. About 300 troops that staff the two batteries would also leave Saudi Arabia, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations.

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The move comes as the U.S. has sent Patriot systems into Iraq to protect American and allied troops there, who came under an Iranian missile attack earlier this year. The Army has a limited number of the systems, and they routinely must be brought home for upgrades.

Two other Patriot batteries that are in the Middle East region are also heading home to the U.S., in a planned redeployment for maintenance and upgrades.

It’s not clear, however, whether the ongoing oil dispute or the struggle to parcel out the much-coveted Patriot systems was the key factor in the U.S. decision to pull systems out of the kingdom.

Air Force Senior Airman Emily Kline, a crew chief with the 378th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron, salutes the F-15E Strike Eagle’s pilot prior to a sortie at Prince Sultan Air Base, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Jan. 8, 2020. The 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron completed the first combat sortie from PSAB since 2003. (Tech. Sgt. Michael Charles/Air Force)

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When Saudi Arabia ramped up oil production and slashed prices this year, Republicans accused the kingdom of exacerbating instability in the oil market, which was already suffering because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The volatility and price crash in oil hurt U.S. shale producers, leading to layoffs in the industry, particularly in Republican-run states.

Some Republican senators warned in late March that if Saudi Arabia did not change course, it risked losing American defense support and facing a range of potential “levers of statecraft” such as tariffs and other trade restrictions, investigations and sanctions.

The U.S. official said a THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system will also remain in Saudi Arabia. The THAAD complements the Patriots by providing a defense against ballistic missiles traveling outside Earth’s atmosphere.

The Saudi government and the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. State-run media in the kingdom similarly did not immediately acknowledge the troop removal.

The Pentagon announced last year that it would begin deploying forces and Patriot batteries to Prince Sultan Air Base, a former U.S. military hub. The move was one of the more dramatic signs of America’s decision to beef up troops in the Middle East in response to threats from Iran.

When Gen. Frank McKenzie, top U.S. commander for the Middle East, visited the base earlier this year, the American troop presence had grown to roughly 2,500. At the time, McKenzie told reporters with him that the base was a key strategic location, but that continued presence of troops and weapons there would depend on other national security needs around the world.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper talks to reporters at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, where he saw a Patriot missile battery that the U.S. sent to Saudi to help protect the kingdom against the Iranian threat. (Lolita Baldor/AP)

Tensions with Iran escalated throughout last summer and fall, as the U.S. blamed Tehran for using mines to target oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz and for attacking Saudi oil facilities. Violence peaked when the U.S. carried out a drone strike in Iraq that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general.

In response, Iran on Jan. 8 fired ballistic missiles at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq where U.S. troops were stationed, causing more than 100 to be diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

At the time of the attack, the U.S. had no Patriot defenses at those bases because it judged other locations, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf, to be more likely Iranian targets. After the attack, the U.S. decided to move Patriots into Iraq to give troops more protection from missiles.

Tensions with Iran remain high. Its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard was involved in a tense incident in the Persian Gulf last month. The Guard’s small boats repeatedly came dangerously close to U.S. warships, crossing in front of them multiple times. And the Guard is believed to have briefly seized control of a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker.

Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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