A T H E N S, March 13, 2001 -- Many Americans know there has been a U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991.

But the reality is that U.S. forces have been stationed there much, much longer.

The U.S. Navy first entered the Gulf in 1944 during World War II, after Italian bombers aligned with Axis forces attacked U.S.-owned oil installations in Saudi Arabia and the neighboring emirate of Bahrain.

Their main purpose then, as it is now, was to guard the oil resources of the West and its communications lines with Europe and the Far East.

Ever since, the Bahraini city of Manama has served as home port and shore base to what is now called the U.S. Fifth Fleet. There is also a military installation at Bahrain's Muharraq Airport.

But the largest contingent of the approximately 24,000 U.S. troops in the region is in Kuwait, which has 10 percent of the entire world's known oil reserves.

Some 4,500 American troops are based in, or rotate through, Camp Doha, near Kuwait City. Fifty miles to the southwest, several squadrons of land and carrier-based aircraft use Ahmed al-Jaber air base.

This air base is one of three used for patrols and bombing raids in Iraq. Kuwait also serves as stockpiling grounds for the U.S. military's Hercules C-130 transports and A-10 "Warthog" ground attack planes, as well as tanks and other equipment.

The U.S. military presence is covered by a formal 10-year defense pact signed by the U.S. and Kuwait in February 1991. It was renewed for another 10 years last month. Kuwait also has defense pacts with Britain, France, Russia and China. The agreements with Russia and China come despite support by Beijing and Moscow for Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

A Billion-Dollar Affair

Elsewhere in the region, U.S. military operations keep a lower profile.

In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. operates several military equipment depots and bases — two of which were allegedly targeted by suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

In Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman, Americans are less liked and U.S. military personnel keep as discreet a presence as possible, rarely wearing uniforms.

U.S. forces operating out of these areas sometimes use both their own bases and the large British Royal Air force base on Masirah Island.

Nevertheless, most Gulf states help support the American forces. According to U.S. congressional testimony, Kuwait contributed $176 million in 1999 to support the U.S. presence in the area, the largest contribution among the Gulf states.

The U.S. presence is also supported with other money as well. Japan, with major offshore oil field joint ventures with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, contributed $4 billion in 1999. The country's economic woes have reduced this number in recent years.