Arrival of ships signals revival of Kuwait City WAR IN THE GULF

March 12, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait -- Sometime today, three cargo ships loaded with water and vital supplies will ease into the deep-water port of Al-Shuaiba behind the British minesweeper HMS Cattistock.

They will be the first supply ships since the invasion, and their arrival is a welcome step in the slow process of restarting this stalled country.

"The port's the ticket," said one U.S. Army officer. "When the port opens, you can do away with these truck convoys."

Long caravans of flat-bed trucks have rumbled slowly north into Kuwait since the fighting stopped. They bring generators, bandages and flour, and case after case of bottled water.

But there still is little sign of life here. So thoroughly was the city disabled and looted, it is like a badly hemorrhaging patient who needs massive transfusions just to register a heartbeat.

There still is no electric power, except from generators that putter in noisy profusion throughout the otherwise quiet city. Water dribbles to some areas from reservoirs on a ridge north of the city, but the supply is being rationed.

Hunger is not a problem for Kuwaitis, but there are shortages in the neighborhoods of minorities, and long lines form for a scant few pieces of fresh bread.

"For two days we have had no fresh bread," said a Palestinian man with five children. "We have rice, but not fresh meat, no vegetables, no tomatoes. Mostly we drink tea."

Garbage has not been collected, and the sewage system does not work.

Many of the major roads are now cleared of war debris. Hospitals are working, and distribution of food and water has begun. But other progress seems bogged in inaction and delay.

"The government has been slow to return," said a U.S. military adviser. "I can't find them."

The pace has caused some grumbling. Muslims are particularly unhappy that there will likely be no electric power by the start this weekend of the monthlong religious holiday, Ramadan, when they fast and pray in the day, and meals and other activities take place at night.

"It is important to get lights before Ramadan," said Mohammed Yusef, 23. "We have our meal at 3 o'clock at night."

Notably absent in Kuwait City is the bustle of individual efforts. There is no hum and hammer of repair; people stay in their homes. In very few places have shopkeepers returned to sweep out damaged businesses.

"People have been under occupation for seven months. There is some bartering going on -- if my neighbor is a dentist I will have him fix my tooth for two bags of sugar he needs -- but people are still wary of congregating," said Lt. Col. Gregory Wojtkun, who is part of the U.S. disaster-assessment operation.

Partly that is because of missing links in the economic chain, such as currency. The occupiers replaced the Kuwaiti dinar with a virtually worthless Iraqi currency. The Kuwaiti government has promised to print a new currency soon but has not done so yet.

"Right now, there's no worry about money because there's nothing to buy," said Mohammad al-Khanfar, a manager of the National Bank of Kuwait. Gasoline and food is being given away. Stores were cleaned out of their merchandise by the departing Iraqis. Still, he acknowledged, "to have cash would be a thrill."

There also is the question of who will do the work. Much labor was done by Palestinians and other foreigners, and Kuwait is adamant about trying to reduce its dependence on these groups, whose allegiance was suspect.

To do so, they seek a drastic remix of the population. Of people who live here, only about two in five are Kuwaiti. The government has moved quickly to close the borders to foreign workers trying to return.

The government's population concerns have delayed recovery. A Saudi-based firm hired to restring electrical wires to get power to Kuwait has had its entry delayed because the linemen are foreigners, according to sources here.

Top on the list of priorities is power. The Iraqis tried to destroy the electric plants, but only partly succeeded. The big Al-Zor plant in the south is working and can supply Kuwait City with 80 percent of its electrical needs, said Maj. Dan Jackson, an engineering liaison with the 3rd Army.

To get that power to the city, contractors must mend 92 breaks over 25 miles of high-tension electric lines, staying within a zone cleared of mines by French and British demolition experts.

That process may take another two weeks, according to experts.

The water supply is dependent on power. All drinking water comes from giant desalination units housed in the power plants. Enough of the capacity is undamaged to supply the city before the reservoirs are depleted in about two weeks, the officials believe.

Still, Major Jackson said, "Kuwait will have to conserve water for six months to a year."

"We tend to think things ought to be there right away," said Jim Parker, a civilian official of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "But this is a disaster. I don't think anybody had any concept of the extent and types of damage that occurred."

But it could have been worse. The allied forces found 350-pound packs of undetonated explosives on each main valve of the water system. Other Iraqi plans for destroying Kuwait City apparently were abandoned when the ground war moved so quickly.

"The Iraqi plan was a 21-day plan for the destruction of the city," said Colonel Wojtkun. "If they would have really had 21 days, it would have been 10 times worse."

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