In a thinly-veiled rehearsal for war in Iraq, the United States is preparing an unprecedented military exercise in Qatar to test its command structure.
The exercise, codenamed Internal Look, is the strongest signal yet that the US intends to wage a possible war from the Gulf state famous for its maverick TV station, al-Jazeera.
The exercise, due to start in about a week, will be the first war game of its kind conducted outside the US, according to the New York Times, which reported details yesterday.
"The command and control procedures practised would be the same used for a war with Iraq," the paper said.
The US has focused its attention on Qatar because of Saudi Arabia's reluctance to let it use existing and highly sophisticated facilities in the kingdom.
Over the last few years, Qatar has shown more sympathy towards Iraq than most other Gulf states and its controversial al-Jazeera channel - established in 1996 with funding from the emir - has excellent contacts in al-Qaida.
But the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, also enjoys close relations with the United States which was the first country to recognise his authority when he took power in a bloodless coup against his father seven years ago.
US officials deny that they have formally asked the emir for permission to launch a war from his country, although they appear confident that permission would be granted if necessary.
Qatar is 700 miles from Baghdad and its al-Udeid air base has the Gulf's longest runway and hangars for 100 aircraft. Currently it is home to the US army's 319th Air Expeditionary Group, fighter-bombers, reconnaissance planes and tankers, with enough equipment on site for one brigade and support units.
This month's exercise will be run from another base in Qatar, as-Sayliyah, which was completed two years ago at a cost of more than $100m (£64m). It has more than 20 climate-controlled warehouses capable of storing enough armoured equipment for a heavy army brigade, including hundreds of tanks.
In what is known as a command post exercise, US commanders will simulate a campaign against an enemy in the region, though no troops will be deployed.
General Tommy Franks, head of Central Command, is expected to arrive in about a week, along with some 750 staff from his headquarters, the paper said.
He will command his forces from the new Qatar headquarters while liaising with Marine commanders in Bahrain, the army commander in Kuwait and the air force commander at the Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
The exercise will coincide with the December 8 deadline for Iraq to provide details of its weaponry under Security Council resolution 1441 but, according to the paper, the commanders intend to leave the Gulf by mid-December unless tensions with Iraq escalate in the meantime.
Once the command system has been tested they will be able to return at any time.
"All we have to do is hop on a plane and come forward," an unnamed military official told the paper.
The US first used al-Udeid base in Qatar in September last year during the run-up to the war in Afghanistan - though its existence was still secret at the time. The emir made it public last March.