KUWAIT CITY — In this city, where memories of Iraqi rapes and executions remain vivid, these are anxious days: Television is offering advice on how to seal rooms from poison-gas attacks, stores are packed with families stockpiling water and other essentials, and desert camps are being set up to cope with an expected tide of war refugees.
The small emirate of Kuwait once more is moving to the fore of the world stage, this time not as the helpless victim of an invading Iraq but as the United States' ally in a looming rematch with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein over his refusal to allow unfettered international weapons inspections.
Almost alone in the Arab world, this tidy, prosperous state that Baghdad occupied and pillaged in 1990 has opened its bases to the United States and Britain and given enthusiastic backing to the idea of launching airstrikes against the Iraqi regime.
Yet behind that confident facade, it is easy to detect the foreboding, a feeling that Kuwait is letting itself in for consequences that no one can predict. During the 1990-91 conflict, Iraqi forces killed thousands of Kuwaitis and caused more than $100 billion in damage.
"We are treading now on very dangerous territories," worries Abdullah Shayeji, a Kuwaiti political scientist. "People are scared, and deep down inside there is a sinking feeling that something very scary and very volatile could happen."
Yet others, including some government officials, say they see opportunity in danger: They believe that Hussein is far weaker than the outside world supposes and that the upcoming contest could be the one that finally brings his reign crashing down.
Kuwait, more than any other Arab country, would be in harm's way from any U.S.-led military operation, people here believe. If Hussein is concealing medium-range missiles with deadly chemical or biological warheads, Kuwait is the closest, most obvious target. If U.S. and British warplanes find and destroy caches of dangerous toxins, Kuwait is the first country downwind. If a sustained allied bombing campaign causes Iraqis to flee their homeland, Kuwait could be the destination of tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees.
And if--as some intellectuals fear--any military operations end with Hussein still in power, and if the United States eventually tires of keeping him in check, then tiny Kuwait would be ill-equipped to cope with the menace of a triumphant, malevolent Iraq.
Shayeji articulates this fear of some Kuwaitis that their country is becoming dangerously out of sync with the rest of the Arab world with its enthusiastic support for the United States.
"If the end game is not to take out Saddam Hussein, then we are gambling," he says, "and putting our money on the wrong roulette number."
Unlike Saudi Arabia, the strategic power in the region and a U.S. ally, which made clear that it did not wish any military operations to be launched from its soil, Kuwait unhesitatingly agreed that 12 U.S. F-117A Stealth fighters and other U.S. and British attack planes may fly sorties from here. Only Bahrain, another small Persian Gulf emirate dependent on U.S. forces for its security, has taken a similar risk.
Conscious that it may be targeted for retaliation, Kuwait already is mobilizing about 24,000 reserve troops to augment its 16,000-strong standing army. And on Monday, during a visit here by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, U.S. commanders requested that as many as 3,000 more ground troops be sent to the Kuwaiti desert to help defend the country against possible Iraqi reprisals.
In general, Kuwaitis agree with the need to defeat the Iraqi regime but fear that the United States and Britain have a track record of half measures--firm enough to wound the Iraqi leadership but insufficient to destroy it.
Unlike in those Middle Eastern countries that are counseling, at least publicly, against military action by the U.S. and Britain, in Kuwait, the worry is that the allied powers won't do enough.
Yet Saud al Sabah, the information minister and nephew of the emir--seemingly someone who ought to know--does not share those doubts. He is convinced that this time, at least, the Americans and British intend to knock the props out from under Hussein.
"There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that it will be a serious and devastating threat to the Iraqi regime, and I think our allies know exactly where to hit so that it will hurt a lot," Saud said.
When it comes to the crunch, he emphasizes, the United States can depend on Kuwait: "We are allies. We have a mutual interest. We have a common enemy. And there is no doubt about where we stand here."
Although the aims of any possible military strike being stated by Washington are relatively modest--compelling Iraq to allow unrestricted U.N. weapons inspections or at least disrupting the regime's capacity to create new weapons to threaten the region--Saud made clear in an interview that he would not mind a more robust outcome.