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Kuwaiti Anxiety Grows Over Possible Iraq War - 2003-01-03

Kuwait, a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf region, could soon become a major launching pad for U.S. forces in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. Anxiety about a second Gulf War is increasing as Kuwaitis debate what effect another conflict will have on their country and the region.

Kuwait City in 2003 bears little resemblance to what the city looked like at the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

Back then, the city lay in ruins, choking from the toxic smoke released from hundreds of burning oil wells nearby. Many grief-stricken citizens believed Kuwait would never recover from the devastation left behind by a retreating Iraqi army after seven months of occupation.

Now, there are few traces of the war left. High-rise office towers fight for space with newly built apartment buildings and shopping malls. Life is back to normal for most Kuwaitis, who enjoy one of the highest living standards in the region because of the country's vast oil reserves.

But the prospect of another war with Iraq has some residents terrified that they could lose everything again. Reyad, a taxi dispatcher, says he fears this time Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may launch Scud missiles armed with chemical or biological warheads to punish Kuwait for cooperating with the United States.

When asked if he's afraid, he replied, "Yes, more than before because this time, they will not come inside Kuwait. They will send bombs. This is a crazy man. They have to find another idea to change him, not by war. Nobody can protect us."

Anticipation of a U.S.-led strike against Iraq has intensified here as thousands of U.S. troops and many tons of equipment have poured into Kuwait in recent weeks. And more troops and equipment are on the way.

Some Kuwaitis applaud the military build-up in their country. They say what concerns them most about a possible war with Iraq is that they don't believe the Bush administration is serious about toppling Saddam Hussein.

Kuwaiti businessman Abdul al-Hajabi lost his only brother to Iraqi sniper fire during the Gulf War. He says he will never feel safe as long as Saddam Hussein is alive.

"I want America to kill Saddam," he said. "I want Bush to please kill Saddam. He is not a good man."

Mohamed Al-Jassim, the editor-in-chief of the Gulf region's largest Arabic-language newspaper, Al-Watan, says most of Kuwait's two million citizens remain largely pro-American, grateful to the U.S.-led coalition that drove out Saddam Hussein's army in 1991.

But he acknowledges anti-American sentiment is on the rise among Kuwait's conservative Arab population. They find it hard to reconcile the U.S. stand against Iraq for violating U.N. resolutions while Washington supports Israel, which, in the Arab view, has ignored U.N. resolutions for years.

In November, two U.S. soldiers were shot outside Kuwait City by a man who said he hated Americans and Jews. A month earlier, a U.S. Marine was killed by a Kuwaiti believed to have been a member of the al-Qaida terrorist organization.

Mr. Al-Jassim says Kuwait, in many ways, reflects the complex relationship between the United States and its Arab allies in the region.

"The Kuwaitis, like the other Arabs, don't understand the Americans and also the Americans don't understand the Arabs really," he said. "It is a matter of how the Americans will promote their ideas. The Americans need to know the Arabs and the Arabs need to know the Americans in a better way. It is a chance after Saddam Hussein to create a new relationship with the Arab people."

While most people in Kuwait cheer the idea of an Iraq without Saddam Hussein, they also say they are uneasy about what will happen if he is ousted. Some people fear that a civil war could break out in Iraq and create turmoil for its neighbors. Others worry that whoever succeeds him will not be any more sympathetic to Kuwait than Saddam Hussein was.

Other Kuwaitis wonder if the creation of a more democratic government in Iraq could also pressure Kuwait into reforming its autocratic political system. Right now, women in Kuwait cannot vote and the country's ruling al-Sabah family appoints all government ministers.

But these issues, while important, are not uppermost in the minds of Kuwaitis. What is uppermost is the looming possibility of war. Nationwide evacuation drills have been held to prepare for a possible missile attack by Iraq. Residents have begun stockpiling water and canned goods.

One woman, buying dozens of cans of vegetables at a supermarket, says she is sure a war is coming. She just doesn't know what kind of war it will be.