Riled Kuwaitis, with Iraqis gone, take on leaders WAR IN THE GULF

March 19, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KUWAIT CITY -- For seven months of occupation a small underground newspaper appeared here under the nose of the Iraqis, photocopied in secret, carried by bicycle around army checkpoints, and slipped over walls to Kuwaiti readers.

Three men were killed for distributing the banned Al-Sumood Al-Shabi.

Today the publisher of the paper will ask the returned Kuwaiti government for permission to continue printing. He expects that once again it will be banned.

"We'll publish it anyhow," said Ghanim al-Najar. "It's a matter of principles."

In the days since the liberation of Kuwait, critics of the government have become emboldened. They are publicly challenging it with blunt criticism they would not have risked before the war.

In the last week, signs of openness have flourished:

* At a press conference Saturday, a banker rose to challenge the minister of power and water, accusing the government of being "incompetent."

* An Islamic opposition member who was jailed before the gulf war for distributing pamphlets critical of the government has resumed pamphleteering.

* Kuwaitis on the street now openly talk to foreign reporters, and many no longer insist on anonymity when listing grievances with the government.

"This is a good time now to voice our opinion," said Abdul Aziz al-Sultan, leader of an opposition group who goes so far as to call for the government's resignation. "The more we voice our opinion now, the less violence there will be in the future."

This bold criticism has revived the fledgling democracy movement in Kuwait that was cut short by the Iraqi invasion Aug. 2. The openness is fueled by the unique presence of many foreign reporters and by widespread dissatisfaction with government actions.

There is rising anger among Kuwaitis over slow progress in restoring power and water services and in providing food in the aftermath of the war.

Many Kuwaitis also are embarrassed by the failure of the government to anticipate the Iraqi invasion and angry at the quick flight from the country of the ruling al-Sabah family.

"Everyone is upset. Almost everyone critiques the government,said Salah Zamani, 25, a volunteer at a community center. "Even the children do it. The war has made them more political."

"The government has got to change. Especially some of the ministers. And the emir," said Saleiman Ghloom, a young economics researcher.

This openness has encouraged political groups that see democratic reforms, although political parties still are outlawed. But it extends beyond politics.

Faisal al-Marzook, a bank director, challenged the utilities minister at a press conference Saturday because "we are dismayed and disappointed, and we are frustrated as hell."

Mr. Marzook said Kuwaitis were encouraged by reports the government-in-exile had meticulous plans to mend the country. But three weeks after its liberation, Kuwait City still lacks food, power, water and telephone service.

"When we were under occupation, we hear that the first day of the end of the occupation everything was coming, everything was ready," he said. "We are shocked that it is a big, fat zero."

"We see a clear demonstration of incompetence in the government," said Khalid al-Sultan, owner of a construction company.

It is uncertain how the government will react to such criticism. Kuwait dabbled with democracy in 1981, but the government disbanded Parliament in 1986 and curtailed political freedoms. Opposition members now are taking full advantage of the foreign press, talking freely to them in the absence of a free press in Kuwait.

The government has imposed increasing restrictions on journalists and recently has stopped reporters coming into Kuwait. There are no facilities for them, the government explained, even though reporters have brought their own food and water.

Martial law has been used to keep some opposition members from re-entering the country and to limit the movement of those who are here, the government's opponents complain.

"Martial law is more to deter political opposition," said Khalid al-Sultan. "I believe the risk will be higher when the international press leaves."

More ominous are reports -- widely believed among opposition groups -- that forces loyal to the al-Sabah family have formed a hit squad to kill opposition members. The rumor was bolstered by an assassination-style attack Feb. 28 that paralyzed outspoken critic Hamad al-Joon. The gunman was not caught.

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