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Kuwait Takes Strong Defensive Measures in Case of Another Iraqi Attack - 2003-02-20

Escalating war tensions in the Gulf have prompted Kuwait to take unprecedented measures to defend itself in case of another attack by its neighbor, Iraq. The country is better prepared to face Saddam Hussein this time, than in 1991.

A mock evacuation of Kuwait's international airport on Wednesday was just one of a dozen emergency drills various government and city workers have participated in recently.

As smoke clouds drifted over the airport, simulating the aftermath of an Iraqi missile attack, employees were hustled into basements that have been converted into bomb shelters. Airport security experts stood by to time the evacuation and evaluate the process.

Many Kuwaitis fear that if there is a war against Iraq, Saddam Hussein will launch missiles at Kuwait in punishment for its staunch support of the United States and Britain. More than 130,000 U.S. and British troops are in Kuwait, preparing for a possible military campaign in Iraq. Thousands more are on their way. Masoud Abu Marzouq is a security officer at the airport. He believes the precautions Kuwait is taking are necessary.

"We are taking things real seriously. All these allied forces are here in Kuwait and everything, so we are taking this very seriously, yes indeed," he said.

The emergency drill at the airport is the latest indication of war planning in this tiny emirate across the border from Iraq.

A week ago, the government sealed off the northern half of the country, making it off-limits to Kuwaiti citizens. It says the area had to be used to help train the army for defending the country and to aid U.S. ground forces. The order effectively doubled the amount of Kuwait's land available solely for military use.

The government has also requested support from the Peninsula Shield, a combined military force of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

Sunday, a battalion of Peninsula Shield troops left Oman for Kuwait and more help is on the way. Bahrain has pledged to send a frigate and an unspecified number of personnel. The United Arab Emirates is sending two warships and a mechanized brigade of several-thousand troops.

But the effectiveness of these forces is a big question. In August 1990, the Peninsula Shield failed to stop Saddam Hussein's forces from invading Kuwait. Iraqi forces occupied the country for seven-months until a U.S.-led coalition drove them out in the first Gulf War.

Determined not to be caught unprepared this time, thousands of Kuwaiti citizens have volunteered to help the government prepare for the worst-case scenario: a possible chemical and biological attack by Iraq.

Twenty-five-year-old Zahara Mohammad is a volunteer who is teaching Kuwaitis how to use gas masks. "I am worried. And I hope nothing happens. But we do not know what will happen," he said.

The more than 15,000 strong Kuwaiti military is not planning to participate in any offensive operation against Iraq. But it is taking unprecedented defensive measures to protect its two million citizens.

For the first time, hundreds of troops have been deployed in the streets of the capital, Kuwait City. Some are in gun-mounted armored personnel carriers guarding various street corners. Thousands more are patrolling the country's desert border with Iraq.

Since 1991, Kuwait has extensively rebuilt the military infrastructure the Iraqis destroyed. The oil-rich country has spent an estimated $12 billion during the past 10-years to buy state-of-the-art American weaponry, including Patriot anti-missile batteries, F/A-18 fighter jets, and Apache helicopters.

The Kuwaiti defense ministry says the country is well prepared for an attack and promises that Iraq would pay "a high price" for aggression.

Sitting inside a bomb shelter at the Kuwait airport, Kuwait Airways employee Sulan Latif praises the government's emergency and security preparations. "It is quite reassuring, quite reassuring. You feel you are in safe hands," he said.

But, while Saddam Hussein is unlikely to send an invading force into Kuwait, most Kuwaitis remain nervous that he could launch a massive pre-emptive missile strike that could devastate the country again.

Watching the mock evacuation drill, there can be no doubt that this is a country on edge.