WASHINGTON, April 19 - The United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration officials say.
American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future: one at the international airport just outside Baghdad; another at Tallil, near Nasiriya in the south; the third at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert, along the old oil pipeline that runs to Jordan; and the last at the Bashur air field in the Kurdish north.
The military is already using these bases to support operations against the remnants of the old government, to deliver supplies and relief aid and for reconnaissance patrols. But as the invasion force withdraws in the months ahead and turns over control to a new Iraqi government, Pentagon officials expect to gain access to the bases in the event of some future crisis.
Whether that can be arranged depends on relations between Washington and whoever takes control in Baghdad. If the ties are close enough, the military relationship could become one of the most striking developments in a strategic revolution now playing out across the Middle East and Southwest Asia, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.
A military foothold in Iraq would be felt across the border in Syria, and, in combination with the continuing United States presence in Afghanistan, it would virtually surround Iran with a new web of American influence.
"There will be some kind of a long-term defense relationship with a new Iraq, similar to Afghanistan," said one senior administration official. "The scope of that has yet to be defined - whether it will be full-up operational bases, smaller forward operating bases or just plain access."
These goals do not contradict the administration's official policy of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, officials say. The United States is acutely aware that the growing American presence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia invites charges of empire-building and may create new targets for terrorists.
So without fanfare, the Pentagon has also begun to shrink its military footprint in the region, trying to ease domestic strains in Turkey and Jordan.
In a particularly important development, officials said the United States was likely to reduce American forces in Saudi Arabia, as well. The main reason for that presence, after all, was to protect the Saudi government from the threat Iraq has posed since its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Already, in Turkey, where a newly elected government bowed to domestic pressure and denied the Pentagon access to bases and supply lines for the war with Iraq, the United States has withdrawn nearly all of its 50 attack and support airplanes at the Incirlik air base, from which they flew patrols over Iraq's north for more than a decade.
Turkish officials say a new postwar security arrangement with Washington will emerge.
"These issues will define a new relationship and a new U.S. presence abroad," said Faruk Logoglu, Turkey's ambassador to the United States. "But the need for an American presence in the region will not be diminished."
Regardless of how quickly the Americans reverse the buildup of the last several months, it is plain that since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a concerted diplomatic and military effort to win permission for United States forces to operate from the formerly Communist nations of Eastern Europe, across the Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and across Central Asia, from the periphery of Russia to Pakistan's ports on the Indian Ocean.
It is a swath of Western influence not seen for generations.
These bases and access agreements have established an expanded American presence, or deepened alliance ties, throughout one of the world's most strategic regions.
"The attacks of Sept. 11 changed more than just the terrorism picture," said one senior administration official. "On Sept. 11, we woke up and found ourselves in Central Asia. We found ourselves in Eastern Europe as never before, as the gateway to Central Asia and the Middle East."
The newest security agreements will come in Iraq. Col. John Dobbins, commander of Tallil Forward Air Base, said the Air Force plan envisioned "probably two bases that will stay in Iraq for an amount of time."
"That amount of time, obviously, is an unknown," he added.
In addition to Tallil, the other base for the Air Force is at Bashur, in the north, Pentagon officials said. The Army now holds the Baghdad airport. The H-1 base in the west has permitted Special Operations forces to move out of their secret bases in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and set up a forward headquarters.
The establishment of these bases follows the strategy used in Afghanistan, where the American military first seized Forward Operating Base Rhino in the desert south of Kandahar, before moving that headquarters into the city. The American military has its senior headquarters in Afghanistan at Bagram airfield outside Kabul, and it has a number of regional civil affairs offices elsewhere in the nation.
In Afghanistan and in Iraq, the American military will do all it can to minimize the size of its forces, and there will probably never be an announcement of permanent stationing of troops.
Permanent access is all that is required, not permanent basing, officials say.
For the Afghan conflict, the Pentagon negotiated new basing agreements with Pakistan and two former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. But the arrangements also signaled a long-term commitment to the region and gave the military the ability to deploy forces there quickly.
Although the new bases in Iraq are primarily for mounting comprehensive postwar security operations, senior administration officials make no secret that the American presence at those bases near Syria and Iran and long-term access to them "will make them nervous."
Or as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell put it on Thursday: "We have been successful in Iraq. There is a new dynamic in that part of the world."
Even so, administration officials are quick to echo Mr. Powell's assertions that Washington has "no war plan right now" for Syria and Iran.
"So don't ask if our tanks are going to move right or left out of Iraq," said one senior administration official. "There are a lot of political weapons that can be unleashed to achieve our goals."
Among the pressures to be exerted against Syria will be a campaign to focus the world's attention on a new administration message. "Syria occupies Lebanon," one senior administration official said. "This is the repression of one Arab state by another. Plus there are terror training camps in the Bekaa Valley."
In addition to tamping down public anxiety over possible military action against Syria, or even Iran, officials are quick to assert that these two nations have the most significant vote on whether the United States will ever apply the template of "regime change" in Iraq to them.
"This does not mean, necessarily, that other governments have to fall," one senior administration official said. "They can moderate their behavior."
Administration officials express keen awareness that they must show humility, and not hubris, in the aftermath of their quick victory in Iraq. "We need to be flexible, and modulate our actions according to the political interests of our allies," said one senior administration official.
The senior official predicted that the American military would "modulate our footprint" in Saudi Arabia, which was so concerned about its role in the air war against Iraq that it blocked Pentagon efforts to station correspondents there.
Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, who directed the air war from a sophisticated command center outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is expected to meet with senior Saudi officials in the next few days to continue discussions about the future of the American military presence there, a senior military official said.
But administration, Pentagon and military officials say it is unlikely that American forces will withdraw completely from the desert kingdom. Military officials are discussing a range of options.
In the Iraq war, American and British warplanes flew from 30 bases in about a dozen countries. In the postwar period, a senior military official said, "We will draw down from those 30 bases, but in a way that will allow us to flex or increase, when we need to."
The roles of many countries in support of the American war effort are coming to light only now.
Two Eastern European countries eager to join NATO quickly offered logistics bases when Turkey blocked the Pentagon's request to base support planes on its soil.
Romania permitted the American military to fly troops, cargo, fuel and vehicles from Europe aboard C-130, C-141 and C-17 transport planes from an air base near the Black Sea port of Constanta. Eight to 10 planes fly missions to Iraq from the base.
About 200 miles to the south, in Burgas, Bulgaria, the authorities opened a training camp and adjacent airfield to 400 Air Force personnel and six KC-10 refueling planes.
Before the war started, 900 Army troops established a training camp for Iraqi exiles at Taszar in Hungary, a new NATO member. The Iraqis were dispatched to serve as guides, interpreters and scouts for American ground troops in Iraq.
In the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon struck a new agreement with Qatar to permit Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the allied commander in the region, to establish his wartime headquarters outside Doha, the capital, and to send many combat aircraft to Al Udeid air base, after the Saudis would not permit missions to be flown from their territory.
Bahrain and especially Kuwait, the staging area for the ground invasion, provided essential bases for the Iraq war. But with Iraq occupied, the Pentagon will review its long-term force and access requirements in the gulf states.
"The subject of a footprint for the United States post-Iraq is something that we're discussing and considering," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week. "But that will take some time to sort through."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company