KUWAIT CITY -- A Kuwaiti army tank column rolled through the streets of the largest Palestinian community here yesterday as soldiers went house-to-house looking for weapons and people believed to have collaborated with Iraqi occupation forces.
The intensive search was ostensibly to disarm the Kuwaiti civilian population -- including the anti-Iraqi resistance movement under a recently announced martial law, but there was clear evidence that the country's 180,000 Palestinian residents were the Kuwaiti army's primary target.
There has been mounting anxiety among Palestinians over possible expulsion or other retaliation by the Kuwaiti government for the support some of them gave to Iraqi authorities during the seven-month occupation that ended last week.
But others, allowed to move freely by the Iraqis, were active with the Kuwaiti resistance and distributed food supplies to Kuwaiti families because they identify themselves as fierce Kuwaiti nationalists.
In Kuwait, which has the world's third-largest concentration of Palestinians, the split was exacerbated by the backing that Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat has given to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Yesterday, tanks and army vehicles blocked all major entrances to Awalli, the city's largest Palestinian community, and army checkpoints were thrown up at major intersections there and in nearby Jabriya so that soldiers could inspect cars and question drivers.
The soldiers were tense and edgy amid army reports of a four-hour exchange of gunfire Saturday at a checkpoint near the Mubarak Al-Kabir Hospital, which they said came under attack by one or more snipers.
Nine Kuwaiti tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through Awalli, accompanied by five supply trucks and at least three vehicles containing advisers from a U.S. Army Special Forces unit. The tanks kept their cannons trained on the upper floors of apartment buildings that lined the streets.
One of the Americans, wearing a Kuwaiti army soldier patch and carrying a Soviet made AK-47 assault rifle, warned journalists not to enter the neighborhood, explaining: "It's a war."
Kuwaiti soldiers were seen marching more than a dozen Palestinian residents down the street to local police stations. Some soldiers fired new M-16 rifles into the air to announce their presence.
One soldier took a Palestinian man by the hair, walked to a corner of two streets and held him face down on the ground, pointing a rifle to the man's head. A U.S. adviser had to restrain the soldier, who pulled the Palestinian back to his feet and then walked him away.
Later, as shots continued to ring out, the American was overheard to say, "You've got to tell your guys to stop shooting."
Nearby, a military van carrying a public address system broadcast a message in Arabic: "Palestinian people, surrender your arms."
"We are looking for people who are collaborators," said a Kuwaiti officer. "We know how to find these people. We know what house to go to."