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Saudi Arabia has transferred much of its advanced F-15 fighter-jet fleet to the northern air force base at Tabuk near the Israeli border and within striking distance of the Jewish state, in an apparent violation of the kingdom’s pledge to the United States.

Israeli defense sources said the F-15s were transferred on the eve of the U.S.-led war in Iraq in March to protect them against Iraqi air or missile attack. The sources said the kingdom has refused to return the F-15s to their original bases in central and eastern Saudi Arabia despite the fall of Saddam Hussein in April.

The United States has asked the Saudi kingdom at least twice to return the F-15s to their bases, the sources said. The U.S. request was prompted by Israeli concern that the F-15s present a military threat to the Jewish state.

The chief concern is that an al-Qaida sympathizer within the Saudi Air Force would fly an F-15E toward Israel in a suicide attack. Israel’s military has increased its monitoring over Tabuk during the last few months as a result of this concern.

Saudi officials acknowledged that Royal Saudi Air Force has moved most of its fleet of advanced F-15Es to the Tabuk air base, less than 200 kilometers from the Israeli border. But the officials said the F-15 deployment does not violate any U.S. terms for the export of the aircraft. Saudi officials said the United States has not pressured it to withdraw F-15E jet fighters from the kingdom’s base at Tabuk.

“The United States has not imposed any pressure on us in this regard,” Saudi Assistant Defense Minister Prince Khaled Bin Sultan told the London-based Al Hayat daily on Sept. 4. “The Saudi kingdom does not accept and will not accept any pressure in issues of its sovereignty.”

Khaled said the F-15S, the F-15E variant sold to Riyadh in 1995, has been flying throughout the kingdom. The assistant minister denied assertions by Israel and the United States that the aircraft had been banned from operating around Tabuk in the northwestern portion of the kingdom.

“The presence of aircraft at Tabuk is exactly the same as the presence of aircraft at any other air base,” Khaled said.

Saudi Arabia has more than 150 F-15s, purchased during the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1995, Riyadh procured 72 F-15E aircraft, renamed the S model. In 1982, the kingdom bought 91 F-15C/D aircraft.

The Royal Saudi Air Force has brought scores of F-15E fighter-jets to the Tabuk air base, the sources said. They did not say whether the air force has conducted air flights.

U.S. officials have asserted that the Saudi kingdom has largely fulfilled its pledge to restrict use of the F-15s. This included a Saudi guarantee that the F-15s would not operate near the northwestern Saudi border, in striking distance of Israel, or be deployed in Tabuk, about 130 kilometers from the southern Israeli port city of Eilat.

“Saudi Arabia will base the F-15 aircraft, not at Tabuk, but at Dhahran, Taif and possibly at Riyadh or Khamis Mushait,” then-U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown said in a letter to Congress in 1978, before the U.S. approved the first F-15 deal.

“Basing the F-15 at the vulnerable Tabuk base could place in needless jeopardy these vital aircraft which will form the heart of the Saudi Arabian air defense system. In addition, Tabuk is not equipped to serve as an operating base for the F-15s, and could not be so equipped without extensive U.S. assistance which would not be provided,” Brown said.

“These practical considerations, of which Saudi Arabia is well aware, strengthen the assurances that the F-15s will not be based at Tabuk,” he concluded.

Tabuk, a city with a population of more than 100,000, contains Saudi army and air force facilities. The U.S. Air Force has also deployed personnel to train the Saudi military and help in maintenance.

For years, Saudi Arabia has kept its F-15 fleet at air bases in Dhahran and Khamis Mushayt. The King Faisal Air Base at Tabuk has contained the air force’s aging F-5 fighter-jet fleet.

In Washington, the Bush administration kept mum on the report of the F-15 deployment at Tabuk. The issue was not raised at either the White House or State Department briefing on Sept. 3.

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