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Fear and Loathing in Kuwait

Gulf: The emirate expects reprisal from Iraq for any U.S. strike. Still, there is a desire to topple the 'evil cancer,' Hussein.


KUWAIT CITY — At the Al Walima Coffee Shop in this capital's old downtown, the talk is all about Saddam Hussein and about President Bush's threat to use U.S. military power to force a regime change in Baghdad.

"America should remove Saddam as quickly as possible. He is a cancer, an evil, evil cancer," said owner Hassan Abdullah Zackariah, 55.

As the United States and Britain continue their push to get Hussein to knuckle under to their demands, Zackariah's sentiment is common among the men who spend their afternoons here drinking tea, smoking water pipes, discussing politics and watching the Arab news network Al Jazeera.

But Zackariah and the others also worry that if the U.S. moves to topple Hussein, Iraq will retaliate by attacking Kuwait, possibly with missiles carrying chemical or biological weapons or by sabotaging the oil fields.

U.S. officials, who view Kuwait as a launch site for a possible attack on Iraq, argue that no country in the region would benefit as much from Hussein's ouster. Maybe so, but no country is more nervous about suffering collateral damage either.

"The day the U.S. attacks Saddam, he will attack Kuwait, for sure," said Zackariah, whose establishment was closed and ransacked by Iraqi soldiers during their brutal seven-month occupation in 1990 and 1991. Abu Muhanned, 50, a retired employee of the Ministry of Commerce, agreed: "Everybody is afraid for Kuwait. Kuwait suffered very much."

Arabic- and English-language newspapers here are closely monitoring the movement of U.S. military personnel and weaponry to what is called Camp Doha--actually a portion of a Kuwaiti air base that has been dedicated for use by the U.S. And, while attempting to avoid an appearance of crisis, the government is announcing new steps nearly every day to reassure citizens that it is prepared to withstand an Iraqi attack.

The Ministry of Health announced last week that it has imported specially designed tents to withstand chemical or biological warfare by providing pressured air. The move was made in "the face of expected 'events' in the region." Half a million gas masks are in storage.

The government has also declared that it is planning an early warning system so residents will know if a nuclear, biological or chemical attack is imminent.

Meanwhile, gas masks are also selling briskly, some Kuwaitis are planning to leave the country if war is declared, and the Kuwait Stock Exchange is plunging.

Some residents are themselves paying $13,000 or more for airtight tents that promise to protect their families for up to 500 hours from biological or chemical agents in the air.

"If the U.S. strikes Iraq, Saddam will take his fury out on us," said Abdullah Mina, 32, a banker who bought one of the tents.

Although there is no indication that the U.S. has even a fraction of the personnel or equipment at Camp Doha that would be needed to launch an offensive, each new report in the local press seems to ratchet up both Kuwaitis' eagerness to be rid of Hussein and their apprehension about being on the front line.

Newspapers last week featured front-page stories about the arrival of more Patriot missiles, defensive weapons meant to shoot down incoming Scud missiles.

The Patriot batteries are to be deployed around the Ali al Salem and Ahmad al Jaber air bases, where the U.S. and British aircraft that enforce the "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq are stationed. The presence of the Patriots is both reassuring and unsettling to the Kuwaitis.

"I am not afraid for myself, but I am afraid of the destruction," Hassan Askanani, 51, a pharmacist, said as the image of Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor, was being shown on Al Jazeera.

Despite a massive rebuilding program, the physical and psychic scars from the Iraqi invasion 12 years ago have yet to heal completely in this country of 2.2 million that sits atop 9% of the world's oil.

A study done last year for the World Health Organization concluded that 20% of ethnic Kuwaitis--who were singled out for particular brutality by the Iraqis-- suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Land mines still litter the desert and Faylakah island, Kuwait's main archeological site.

Lately, though, civil defense training--including some conducted by German and Czech military personnel--has been stepped up, and school evacuation drills have been ordered.

"We want to be safe. Everybody in Kuwait wants to be safe if the Americans go after Saddam," said Khaled Sabah, 32, an accountant. "My wife is worried about the children. Everybody is worried about the children."

Doctors say U.S. authorities have inquired about the number of doctors and the availability of certain medicines.

On Sunday, the Ministry of Commerce announced that it will issue food rationing cards to non-Kuwaitis in case food supplies are threatened. Kuwaitis, who are outnumbered by the expatriates, already have such cards.

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