The move comes as Washington decreases to almost zero its military profile in Saudi Arabia, where the presence of United States troops has generated resentment because of their proximity to Islam's holiest sites.

    

Lieutenant Gary Arasin, a spokesman at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, said Major General Robert Elder presided over a de-activation ceremony for the 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing on Tuesday at Prince Sultan Air Base, presenting a plaque to a Saudi colonel.

   

"That signifies that we are getting ready to turn the base back over to the Saudis, or our portion of where we held operations. It was a Saudi base all along," Arasin said.

 

Clean-up

  

Arasin said fewer than 200 US troops had remained at the facility, primarily security personnel and civil engineers getting the base ready to turn it over to the Saudis after more than a decade there. He said a small number remained there to finish the clean-up process.

   

US forces removed most troops and all the aircraft from the base in June.

   

A US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said dozens of US military advisers remained in Saudi Arabia to assist the Saudi military in training.

   

The United States had maintained a high-tech air operations centre at the base whose functions now have been moved to Qatar. This air operations centre controlled air strikes during the Iraq invasion. The US had also used the facility to patrol a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq.

   

US military personnel there generally numbered about 5000, with thousands more during the Iraq invasion.

   

"That signifies that we are getting ready to turn the base back over to the Saudis, or our portion of where we held operations. It was a Saudi base all along"

Lieutenant Gary Arasin,
US spokesman

The presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia had generated resentment within the kingdom and in the Arab world because of their proximity to Islam's holiest sites. It was a major grievance cited by the Saudi-born Usama bin Ladin and his al-Qaida network.

 

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz announced on 29 April that the US would end military operations in the oil-rich kingdom and remove virtually all its forces.

   

Rumsfeld said the removal of Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq had changed the dynamics in the Gulf region and allowed the US to shift forces out of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia denied media reports that it demanded that the US withdraw.