DOHA, Qatar – The Saudi government has shut down civilian flights to an airport near the Iraqi border so it can be used by American forces in a possible war against Iraq, sources in Saudi Arabia said Friday.
Hundreds of American troops have deployed at the airport, according to a source who is well-positioned to observe the activity outside the town of Araar, 40 miles south of Iraq.
The source, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone, said Araar Airport will be closed to civilian traffic for four months.
Saudi Arabia, fearful of Muslim extremist backlash, has said it will not allow U.S. troops to use its territories in an attack on Iraq.
All normal commercial flights to Araar have been diverted to Al-Jawf, 112 miles to the southwest, the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Travel agents told a resident in Saudi Arabia who wanted to travel to Araar Airport that although almost daily flights are listed to that city, the computer was not accepting any bookings.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the report and Saudi officials were unavailable.
The Qatar-based Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera on Friday quoted Saudi officials as saying Araar Airport had been closed for maintenance of runways, with all flights diverted to Al-Jawf. Al-Jazeera quoted unidentified Saudi opposition groups as saying the airport had been closed to accommodate U.S. troops.
On Wednesday, a Saudi dissident organization based in Washington said a witness who traveled through Araar Airport this week said he saw dozens of American soldiers at the airport.
A Saudi opposition group based in London, the Movement of Islamic Reforms in Arabia, said Monday that thousands of American troops had landed in the past week at the kingdom’s Tabouk air base, 310 miles southwest of Araar.
In the 1991 Gulf War, the kingdom invited the United States to help defend it against Iraqi soldiers who had occupied Kuwait. The presence of U.S. troops in a country that is home to Islam’s holiest shrines angered some Muslims.