Kuwaitis celebrate--and start to count their losses Resistance fighters rejoice in triumph WAR IN THE GULF

February 28, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Sun Staff Correspondent

KUWAIT CITY -- Barely 18 hours after exchanging gunfire with Iraqi soldiers, Abdel Mohammed raced through the city firing his automatic rifle to celebrate the liberation of Kuwait, ignoring the gunshot wound in his left foot.

The Kuwaiti resistance fighter rejoiced with soldiers from the Kuwaiti and Saudi armies, which rolled into the city to proclaim victory over the Iraqi military forces that had virtually destroyed Kuwait's oil economy during a brutal seven-month occupation.

Young men hung out of car windows firing their guns, while other Kuwaitis embraced or gathered with friends to wrap themselves in their country's flag. After seven months of hiding in their homes, the Kuwaitis could finally take to the streets and reclaim them as their own.

The street celebrations unfolded beneath the eerie glow of oil fires that ringed the city and turned whole sections of the night sky crimson.

Even as jubilant resistance fighters and Arab coalition troops fired their weapons in celebration, red tracer fire occasionally flared in the sky, and the sound of U.S. and Iraqi tanks exchanging fire thundered across the city. By nightfall, U.S. forces had secured the airport on the outskirts of the city.

"You couldn't tell who was who, they were so close," said a U.S. Army officer at a post near the airport.

Allied forces continued to ferret out sporadic pockets of resistance, and civilian fighters like Mr. Mohammed searched through neighborhoods rounding up Iraqi soldiers.

"Yesterday we took more than 200," he said. Many Iraqis, he added, pointing to the bullet wound in his foot, were unwilling to lay down their arms without a fight.

Mr. Mohammed, 23, a self-described sergeant in the resistance, proudly wore the only uniform he had -- a red Kuwaiti firefighter's jumpsuit and cloth slippers.

He expressed anger at the Iraqis, saying that his 60-year-old father died of a heart ailment "one month ago because he didn't have medicine here." The family tried to take him to the hospital, but Iraqi soldiers had stripped much of the local facility bare, he said.

Mr. Mohammed, the father of a 2-month-old baby boy, said food has been scarce. Asked about his diet, he said, "Bread and cheese for seven months" -- and often only one meal a day.

Abdullah al Wasais, 31, said he shared his friend's anger. He said Iraqi prisoners were not being abused, "but they have much to answer for."

"It's hard to accept their friendship when what they have done is not human," he said.

It would be hard for Kuwaitis to forgive the Iraqis for what they had done to the country and its people, he said, explaining that the Iraqis had enlisted the aid of local Palestinians during the occupation.

"After the invasion, they came out and helped show the Iraqis where resistance fighters lived. If they did not like someone, they would tell the Iraqis, 'He is resistance,' " he said.

Kuwaiti citizens said Iraqi soldiers and many of their Palestinian supporters began fleeing the city Sunday night. For the Palestinians left behind, the prospect of violent retaliation is a concern -- as it is to allied security forces who are now charged with restoring order.

The Kuwaitis said that Iraqis robbed many Kuwaitis of jewelry and money and would stop people in the street to commandeer cars.

Mohammed al Mohana, 48, a retired government worker, was one of thousands who poured into the streets of Kuwait City yesterday, not in celebration but in frantic search for loved ones not seen or heard from since the invasion.

He said his 31-year-old cousin was among the missing; he fears he may have been taken to Iraq as a hostage by the retreating Iraqi army.

At least 3,000 Kuwaitis were reportedly rounded up Friday and Saturday in anticipation of an all-out allied ground offensive and driven northward toward Baghdad for use as possible bargaining chips.

Mr. Mohana's story was impossible to confirm, but people throughout the city offered their own testaments to the brutality of the occupation. There were reports that the bodies of two nude young women had been left in a local cemetery.

Allied military leaders accused Iraq last week of executing hundreds of Kuwaitis in an attempt to eliminate "the evidence" that the civilians had been tortured during the occupation. The extent of the violence is likely to become clearer in the days ahead.

Throughout the city, there were scattered reminders of the recent fighting and the effects of the allied bombing campaign.

Burned-out Iraqi tanks, armored vehicles and trucks were strewn about the major highway leading into the capital. The fires from burning oil storage tanks cast a smoky gray haze over the landscape while generating a menacing rumble that could be heard for miles.

Cars carrying Kuwaiti refugee families home sped toward the city from the Saudi border as Iraqi prisoners of war crowded into buses and cattle trucks that barreled southward toward internment camps.

With Kuwait City securely in allied control, teams of Red Crescent relief workers also streamed northward to provide medical care.

Convoys of trucks laden with food, water and portable power generators began arriving as well.

There were signs that some Iraqi troops left hastily. At an equestrian club and racetrack near the airport that had been converted to a military hospital, rifles, rucksacks, helmets and chemical weapons protection suits were still in the main building.

Operating tools and dental equipment that had been used recently were left lying on tables, as was a half-eaten meal. U.S. soldiers swept the complex for booby traps and mines.

The Marines were greeted as heroes by the Kuwaitis with exuberant cheers, victory signs and cries of "Thank you for helping us."

"We want to send out appreciation to President Bush and everyone who has become our friend," one motorist shouted as he passed a group of Marines standing by the roadside.

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