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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Hussein's Anti-Kuwait Rant Strikes a Chord With Iraqis

He should face trial, but invading their neighbor should not be part of the charges, they say.

July 03, 2004|Ashraf Khalil | Special to The Times

BAGHDAD — When Saddam Hussein derided Kuwaitis as "dogs" during his court appearance and defended Iraq's "historical right" over its southern neighbor, he was playing to ordinary Iraqis --and doing an effective job of it.

In interviews Friday, people talked about his remarks with approval even if they also wanted the former dictator to go on trial for war crimes.

Hussein's tirade during his brief court appearance Thursday tapped into a deep reservoir of Iraqi resentment toward Kuwait -- a tactic that illustrates his understanding of his former subjects.

It also points up one of the trial's difficulties: Iraqis approve of some of the acts for which Hussein is being tried.

Thirteen years after a multinational force drove the Iraqi army from the emirate, Kuwaitis remain the villain of choice for many Iraqis. Many continue to regard Kuwait as a breakaway province that provoked Iraq into invading.

On Thursday, a crowd that gathered around the television at the Rukn Azaim restaurant in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood to watch Hussein's court appearance saw his anti-Kuwait rant.

"Everybody sitting here jumped up, shouting, 'By God, he's right,' " said Samir Malik, a waiter. He said the inclusion of the Kuwait invasion in the list of charges against Hussein proved that the trial was being driven by American and Kuwaiti interests.

"If they understood, they wouldn't try him for invading Kuwait," Malik said.

Kuwaitis occupy a central role in popular conspiracy theory here. The hand of Kuwaiti intelligence agents is seen behind the looting and chaos that racked the capital in April 2003; lost treasures of the Iraqi National Museum are rumored to be adorning the palaces of the Kuwaiti royal family.

"They're the cause for the destruction of the country," said restaurant manager Mahmoud Younis. "There's a permanent roadblock between the two peoples."

Hussein's claim of territorial rights over the emirate found immediate resonance, even among those who said they hated the former dictator and were glad he was gone. Those claims predate Hussein.

Iraq never fully accepted the autonomy of Kuwait under the British, who controlled the region after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In June 1961, when an independent Kuwait joined the Arab League, Iraq strongly objected.

Aside from political disputes, Kuwaitis have long had a checkered reputation in Iraq.

Until 1990, the southern Iraqi city of Basra was a popular vacation spot for Kuwaitis, who gained a reputation there for arrogant, drunken, lecherous and vulgar behavior.

Shukriya Mohammed recalled working as a maid at a Basra hotel in the 1980s after the death of her husband. "I suffered a lot from the conduct of the Kuwaiti guests," she said. "One of them tried to rape me. I quit the job despite the fact that I needed the money."

The same sentiments can be found in Egypt, another popular vacation spot that plays host to thousands of free-spending Kuwaiti and Saudi families every summer.

In Egypt and Iraq, the locals' anger seems fueled by a combined sense of cultural superiority and economic inferiority.

The Kuwaitis are resented for a perceived attitude that their money can buy anything -- and are disliked further because they might be right.

"They're barbarians," Malik, the waiter, said. "A bunch of Bedouins with money."

Curiously, Kuwait is the target of more vitriol than Iran, with whom Hussein went to war.

During the 1980-88 war, Hussein pumped out a steady stream of anti-Iranian propaganda. But it failed to result in lingering ill will.

"The Iranian people suffered just as much as the Iraqis," said dentist Ahmed Mahmoud, 29. "But the Kuwaitis ran to London and hid behind the Americans."

If anything, the Iran-Iraq war is regarded as a reason to further dislike the Kuwaitis. The Persian Gulf states are viewed as having encouraged Hussein's war to stem the expansion of Iran's Islamic Revolution. The war crippled the Iraqi economy, but Hussein's appeals for his neighbors to forgive part of Iraq's debt were ignored.

That, combined with a dispute over a large oil field at the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, left many Iraqis believing that Hussein had no choice but to invade.

"For eight years, we were defending them, and then they turned around and tried to exploit us and ruin our economy," said Mahmoud, the dentist.

Now the hard feelings seem destined to linger long after Hussein's fate is decided.

Iraq still owes most of an estimated $100 billion to Kuwait and other countries in war reparations.

About $18 billion of that has been paid out of oil revenues, and much of the remainder is being considered by a special United Nations commission.

The debt will take years to clear, further honing Iraqis' resentment toward their southern neighbor.

Younis, the restaurant manager, complained that Kuwaiti families were buying new cars and remodeling their palaces on the backs of the downtrodden Iraqi people.

For Malik, the waiter, one thing was clear: "Saddam knows his people."

Times special correspondent Shehab Mahmoud in Basra contributed to this report.

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