What in the World Is Diego Garcia?

If you're a lone superpower looking to beat up on Saddam Hussein a little, finding a place to put your fighting men ain't as easy as it used to be.

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A Closer Look

There's one territory that doesn't make any trouble about being used for U.S. air strikes against Iraq -- a cloistered, little-known launching pad of an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia.

The Pentagon is using the tiny horseshoe-shaped atoll, which the U.S. is leasing from Great Britain, as a landing strip for B-52 bombers.

Fly over Diego Garcia and it looks as if a well-designed air-naval base had risen from the sea. Down one prong runs a 12,000-foot airstrip, long enough for the lumbering B-52s and AWAC transports; the sheltered harbor is deep and broad enough to accommodate warships and nuclear submarines. The base is well within bombers' range of the Gulf and makes an ideal fueling stop for U.S. ships patrolling to the south should they be needed as reinforcements. Best of all, it's a base of operations where the natives can't say no.

At least not anymore. Upon acquiring the island, named for the Portuguese navigator who discovered it in 1532, from Mauritius in 1965 in a deal for that island nation's independence, the British government promptly leased the island to the U.S. military -- and then orchestrated a forced repatriation of Diego Garcia's native Ilois to Mauritius. Some Ilois committed suicide rather than be moved; those who survived fared poorly in their new home. They never stopped campaigning for their return -- and never got it. In 1982, Britain finally settled with the displaced islanders for $7 million.

For the last three decades, Diego Garcia has been inhabited solely by -- and open only to -- U.S. servicemen and a token contingent of British administrators. In the late '70s it was home to Jimmy Carter's Delta Force; in the early '80s, Ronald Reagan built the base into a key outpost while the Iran-Iraq war raged and the U.S. and the Soviet Union vied for supremacy in Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. At a time when the alliances of local nations were for sale and often swung wildly, Diego Garcia was blissfully free of political turmoil.

The U.S. guards this strategic jewel closely. Aside from a brief tour allowed in 1976 while Carter made noises about "demilitarizing" the region, nary a journalist has set foot on the island -- a Newsweek writer's dateline from that trip was wryly datelined "Somewhere East of Suez." Construction and maintenance of the base's communications equipment, fuel facilities and military hardware is done strictly by military contractors, and inventories of that weaponry is classified. With no civilians allowed, Diego Garcia remains the loneliest military outpost in the world.

For U.S. servicemen, just getting to Diego from the States is a lesson in the value of maintaining a political oasis in the region. A Navy advisory reminds travelers that numerous refueling stops "may be in countries where our presence is internationally sensitive... No clothing, hats or belt buckles with slogans or insignia which may draw attention to your status as an American citizen/military member may be worn. This is required for your personal safety." Those who do arrive, however, are privy to something of a Club Med for men in uniform.

"Some of the world's finest fishing is at our doorstep," boasts a Navy guide to the island for incoming servicemen. Coconut palms dot jungles teeming with tropical fruit and wildlife, coral reefs ring the lagoon, and though "temperatures and humidity are both high, tropical breezes usually help keep the climate pleasant." One of the caveats: "Swimming, snorkeling, sailing and windsurfing in the lagoon all involve possible contact with hostile and potentially deadly marine life." And of course there's the "large number of feral cats." But even indoors types can enjoy "reasonably priced meals, bar/lounge areas, pool tables, movies, dancing and music." And don't forget the handball courts.

No wonder that presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush all ignored plaintive demands by Mauritian government that the island be returned to its sovereignty. It served Bush well as a staging area during the Gulf War, and President Clinton has earmarked it as a politically insulated base for long-range, missile-laden B-52 sorties and, if necessary, the B-1 bombers that would be grounded in Bahrain. "As a long-range base, Diego is perfect," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "It's convenient, it's isolated and you don't have to deal with recalcitrant allies or terrorist attacks. It's an immovable aircraft carrier."

In a one-superpower world, a base a thousand miles south of the tip of India doesn't have nearly the regional strategic importance it had at the height of the Cold War. But at a time when the U.S. and Britain find themselves increasingly isolated in this latest effort to control Saddam Hussein, it's sure nice to know that Diego Garcia is out there. Somewhere.