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BUILDUP IN THE PERSIAN GULF : Kuwaitis Angry Over Recurring Threat by Iraq : Gulf: Despite troop pullback, residents resent Hussein's reign of terror.


KUWAIT CITY — Mohammed Ali Jassem worked his way slowly down the narrow supermarket aisle after work Tuesday, loading the shopping cart with a large case of bottled water while his wife, Shireen, bought two packages each of sugar, flour, rice, tea and a few other staples.

"I hate this," Jassem said, adding a case of long-life milk to the groceries. "Every time that jerk Saddam Hussein gets a nutty idea, we and the rest of the world have to go crazy with him."

Like most Kuwaitis, Jassem and his wife were stocking their pantry "just in case," as he put it, "another 350 American warplanes cannot make Iraq understand the futility of these threats against us."

Like most Kuwaitis, the Jassems are remaining here despite the crisis on the border with Iraq--although with extra gasoline for a getaway to Saudi Arabia if need be.

And like most Kuwaitis, they expect Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to "chicken out," as Jassem put it with a Texas twang.

"The trouble is, how to be sure," said Jassem, 34, a computer technician who trained in Dallas. "In 1990, we were sure--our government was sure, the United States was sure, everyone else was sure--that Iraq would not attack. They not only attacked but swallowed us whole. . . .

"Everyone now says that can't happen again. It probably can't. But what we do have is a guy who, every six or eight months, starts breathing heavily and flexing his muscles and we have to prepare for the very worst. How can we live this way? And why should we have to?"

Even as the threat of an imminent Iraqi attack receded, Kuwaitis seemed more angered than relieved, more annoyed with the inability of the world to deal a final blow to Saddam Hussein than pleased that the forthright stand by the United States had halted the buildup.

"Once again, Iraq seems to have gotten away with it," businessman Ahmed Juhail complained, "and that means it will begin all over again in a few months. We will have to stay on our guard, keep a month's food in the house, $10,000 in the safe, cans of gasoline in the garage and loaded guns in the closet. Isn't it time the world does something about Saddam Hussein?"

In the traditional evening meetings that Kuwait's leaders hold in their homes, in the souks where merchants have modernized their stores with air conditioning and in high-rise office buildings where the country's considerable wealth is managed, the strong feeling Tuesday was that Iraq had been turned back but that Saddam Hussein should be punished.

"We saw this crime in time to stop it, thank God, but just in time," said Ibrahim Quraishi, an engineer who has spent much of the last three years rebuilding Kuwait. "You can feel the nerves of society relaxing. It may be a delusion, but it seems we are safe--for now.

"There are two questions: how to prevent further mischief by this man, and how to exact a price for all this. If we see action there, we can really relax."

Throughout the crisis, the Kuwaiti mood has been one of calm preparation--a confidence in the alliance their government has forged with their neighbors and the West, a confidence that their small army of 18,000 will fight and not run if attacked and a confidence in themselves and their will to resist.

Though lines formed at gas stations, markets and banks when Kuwaitis learned of the buildup, there has been no panicked flight.

The prime minister, Crown Prince Sheik Saad al Abdullah al Sabah, returned two days early from a trip to Italy to rally his people. In a fighting speech, he declared, "We will pay the price, no matter what, to defend Kuwait. Iraq should understand that the Kuwaiti people--men, women, the elderly and the young--have agreed on one word, which is 'death' for the sake of Kuwait."

The Cabinet has held emergency sessions each day, Saad has addressed Parliament and the Kuwaiti press has given full coverage to the crisis--all in contrast to the government's frightened and hasty retreat in 1990.

Two hospitals were put on alert, the government opened its warehouses to ensure a steady supply of food and stable prices, and army reserves were quickly deployed.

"We know that our allies will come, fast and hard, in a crisis," said banker Yousef Quraishi. ". . . But we are not a people that wants to live under the gun, subject to the moods and ambitions and rages of a madman."

Ahmed Bakr, a member of the Islamic group in Parliament, sees the crisis as a step in Hussein's "strategy to build up his power again in the region. . . ."

"Whereas in 1990 he wanted our land and our oil, today he uses us for political leverage in a power play," Bakr said. "Threaten Kuwait and make the West respond--it's a simple tactic, and among the Arabs it pays off. The only way to frustrate it is to make it too costly to use again."

Kuwait has sought to ensure its safety through 10-year defense agreements with four of the five permanent Security Council members--Britain, France, Russia and the United States. China, the other permanent member, is expected to sign a similar pact by year's end.

For Kuwaitis, many of whom have strong and bitter memories of the Iraqi occupation, these are not theoretical questions, but hard and intensely personal concerns.

"What do I tell my daughters about rape?" asked Najiba Mutairi, 40, a social worker with three girls, 12, 13 and 15. "They know that four years ago, the Iraqis raped many, many women as a form of torture, and every time there is a buildup on the border they get very, very frightened for themselves, for me, for their friends. . . .

"We have to live with the collective memory of that occupation. We are a small nation, a family where everyone seems to know everyone, and thus what happened to anyone happened to us."

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