Pentagon Wants to Pull U.S. Troops from Sinai, but White House Unsure

The White House is weighing a Pentagon plan to remove U.S. forces from the Sinai Peninsula.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has informed the Multinational Force and Observers that he would like to reduce the U.S. contingent from 900 to as few as 26 men.

“It’s more radical than what was anticipated in the region,” said a senior official with a U.S. Jewish organization.

The MFO is a peacekeeping mission with 1,900 troops from 11 countries, which has been patrolling the Israeli-Egyptian border. It was established by Egypt and Israel in 1982 to monitor the security arrangements of their 1979 peace treaty.

The use of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and other world hot spots has raised concern over lingering projects like the Sinai force.

“I do not believe that we still need our forces in the Sinai,” Rumsfeld said in a news conference earlier this month.

White House officials are not so sure, wary of steps that could heighten instability in the Middle East. The White House reportedly prefers to consult more with Israel and Egypt before making a final decision.

White House officials did not return requests for comment.

Gal Luft, a former Israel Defense Force commander on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, said the MFO plays a crucial role in the region.

Though the Israeli-Egyptian border has been quiet, tension between the two countries has risen since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, and it may be harder to restore stability without a U.S. presence, he said.

“The combination of Egyptian and Israeli troops, Palestinian policemen and unruly warlords all operating in an area no wider than a football stadium is a recipe for instability,” Luft wrote in a Washington Institute for Near East Policy report. Withdrawing U.S. forces could lead to a perception that “the United States is abdicating its responsibilities in the region.”

Both Israel and Egypt must sign off on any withdrawal by the United States, and both countries are reluctant to do so.

“The forces in Sinai are an integral part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and we should be careful about sending a message that could be considered by some as a possible American disengagement from that treaty,” an Israeli official said.

Egypt agrees.

“The continued presence of a U.S. contingent is important,” Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, told The Washington Post.

Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, both will be in Washington next week for high level meetings, and are expected to broach the subject.

Relations between Egypt and Israel, never warm despite a formal peace treaty, have turned frostier since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. Most notably, Egypt pulled its ambassador from Tel Aviv in November 2000, and has not returned him.

The MFO costs the United States $15 million year, the same amount paid by Israel and Egypt.

In May 1967, a U.N. force left the Sinai under pressure from Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nasser subsequently closed the strategic Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships and moved Egyptian troops through the Sinai toward the border with Israel, sparking the Six-Day War.

To reduce the chances for a similar scenario, Luft advocates either a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops over several years, or an increase in other troops to replace the Americans.

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