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US wants elite Marine squad to be stationed permanently in Andalusia

Special operations force at Morón would be in place to respond to crises in Africa

US Marines seen during exercises at the Morón air base on December 6, 2013.

The United States is seeking permission from Spain to convert its temporary presence at the Morón de la Frontera air base, in Andalusia, into a permanent agreement. The site would become the center of operations for the US rapid-response unit dealing with crises in Africa.

In a letter sent last month, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explained to Spanish officials that the Obama administration wants the current temporary agreement that allows a certain number of marines to be stationed at the base outside Seville on a year-by-year basis to be redrafted. If approved, as many as 3,000 US troops could be sent to Morón – a substantial increase to the current 850 officials (or 1,100 when troops are being relieved) that have been at the base for the past two years, military sources said.

But such a move means that there will have to be major changes to the current bilateral treaty regarding the US government’s use of Spanish bases, which will also have to be approved by Congress.

Major changes will be needed to the bilateral treaty regarding the US government’s use of Spanish bases

Although not surprised by Hagel’s request, some Spanish officials said privately that they are unhappy that the Obama administration waited this long to ask for the change. The current agreement to use Morón as a temporary base runs out on April 19, which doesn’t leave either side much time to hammer out a new treaty.

With municipal and regional elections slated for May, and the dissolution of Congress scheduled for the fall, neither Washington nor Madrid want to leave this decision for a new incoming parliament as they both fear the Popular Party (PP) won’t have a majority to get it passed by lawmakers. The government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said that it will ask the Socialists for their support to modify the treaty.

According to sources, Spain could offer the United States an extension to the existing agreement to give the two countries ample time to negotiate changes to the existing treaty and deliver it to Congress for its approval.

Neither Washington nor Madrid want to leave this decision for a new incoming parliament

In 2013, the United States asked Spain to lease the base at Morón so that it could quickly respond to any crises originating in Africa. The request was made for one year, and renewed in 2014. Initially, Madrid only allowed 500 Marines at Morón, but increased that number to 850 last March.

Spain plays an important role in the Pentagon’s military strategy in Africa and Europe. In October 2011, Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero allowed the United States to use the Rota naval base in Cádiz as part of NATO’s defense shield. The guided missile destroyers USS Donald Cook and USS Ross, which are both stationed at Rota, were deployed to the Black Sea last year during the Ukrainian crisis.

The Special Purpose Marine Ground Task Force (SP-MAGTF), which was created in 2013 following the assault on the US diplomatic mission in Bengazhi the previous year, has been training with Spanish elite squads.

One of the most sensitive issues is the number of troops that will be stationed at Morón when the treaty is signed. “What we don’t want is an open bar,” said one diplomatic source. “The Spanish government needs to be informed precisely during a crisis and control any military operations originating from its soil.”