KUWAIT CITY -- Kuwait's leaders pledged to bring democracy to their newly freed country yesterday as Secretary of State James A. Baker III paid his first visit here after flying over the sky-blackening oil field fires and scarred landscape left by war.
Before meeting with Mr. Baker in a borrowed mansion, Crown Prince Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah told reporters that elections would come "very soon" to the ransacked country, which is currently under martial law.
He was "not going to fix a date now," he said, "but let us hope that things will go very quietly in restoring stability to the country."
Earlier, the emir of Kuwait, who remains in Taif, Saudi Arabia, pledged during a photo opportunity that his country "absolutely" would be democratized according to its constitution.
Asked if women would get the vote, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah said such a reform "is not in the constitution so far but it is always possible to think about in the future."
Kuwait's imposition of martial law after its liberation by U.S.-led forces, along with its record of failure to commit itself to democratic reforms, have fueled internal and external criticism of the regime headed by the al-Sabah family.
A U.S. official said the kind of reforms contemplated by the Kuwaitis involve reinstituting Kuwait's previously disbanded elected parliament along more liberal lines, in order to spread more power outside the ruling family. But the al-Sabahs would retain a large measure of control over the country, the official said.
The emir, whose continued absence from Kuwait has prompted fevered speculation about his emotional state, said he would return to his country "during this week."
He said he had stayed away "for private reasons," refusing to elaborate.
Mr. Baker's trip to the Mideast aims to seize on the political momentum from the victory over Iraq to advance regional security and move the Arab-Israeli peace process forward.
Yesterday, his Boeing jet banked over scores of furious oil field fires set by Iraqi forces that glowed bright orange through vast black clouds of smoke and coated the desert with what looked like soot.
Also along the plane's path were charred craters, apparently left by bombs, numerous sand-built tank revetments and wreckage.
Rivers of oil testified to Iraqi plans to set battlefields ablaze.
The outer limits of Kuwait City, seen through a wind-carried gray haze, contained whole neighborhoods that looked abandoned.
An airfield was strewn with the carcasses of aircraft.
Mr. Baker later told the crown prince that the flight into Kuwait was "a very emotional moment," one that gave him a "great sense of pride" in President Bush, U.S. forces and the allied coalition.
But the secretary showed none of that feeling publicly, keeping a brisk, all-business demeanor that didn't even allow him to greet the soldiers posted near the airfield.
Security was so tight that he and his entourage climbed into vehicles to travel the one block between the tarmac and his meeting site.
His bodyguards kept fingers on the triggers of their Uzi rifles in what was said to be the highest state of alert since former Secretary of State George Shultz's motorcade was attacked in Bolivia.
Describing life inside Kuwait to reporters, U.S. Ambassador Edward W. "Skip" Gnehm said, "I've been struck by how empty the city is."
He estimated that Kuwait City currently has just 300,000 to 400,000 of its pre-war population of 2 million.
"There are large sections where there is just no movement and not much life," he said.