Has Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's Tampa-based Central Command found a permanent new home in the Middle East?

Defense Department officials said Wednesday that no decision has been made to relocate the U.S. Central Command, but they acknowledged that military planners are discussing the idea."It is a policy issue and it is a subject that is working right now" in the international security affairs office, said Howard Hicks, a Defense Department spokesman.

The idea of relocating CentCom is not new, but before Operation Desert Storm potential host nations resisted allowing a U.S. military presence in their back yards.

"Nobody in the region would ever take it," said Arthur Lowrie, political adviser to CentCom from 1982 until 1986. "Even the gulf states and Saudi Arabia said, `We're counting on you, we love you, but we want you over the horizon.' "

Some experts say those attitudes changed after Iraq's conquest of Kuwait.

"I think the political climate has changed" since Aug. 2, said retired Gen. Robert Kingston, commander of CentCom from 1983 until 1985. "I was over there three weeks before Christmas, and I'd imagine we didn't send all that equipment in there to bring it all out again."

CentCom, a 989-person contingent housed in peacetime at MacDill Air Force Base, is the nerve center for the U.S. military strategists who planned the campaign that defeated Iraq.

It is the administrative headquarters for military affairs in a region that includes Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Yet despite its crucial role, CentCom is the only U.S. command that has no permanent home in its area of responsibility. Analysts say the tactical military advantages of putting CentCom in its area of responsibility must be weighed against the volatility of the region.

"It would be preferable to be close to the theater, but in this case you don't always know who your enemy is," said Lawrence J. Korb, a former Pentagon official and now a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution.

"Suppose you set up in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-Israeli thing flares up. Whose side are you on then?"

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service