Change seems impossible, hope futile A year later,Kuwait battles to rebuild. Special report PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

August 02, 1991|By New York Times

KUWAIT CITY -- A year after the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait has been enveloped by a malaise as numbing as the August heat and depressing as the oily soot that hangs over the city.

President Saddam Hussein of Iraq still looms, larger than life, over Kuwait. The political changes promised by the ruling Sabah family, including parliamentary elections in 1992, strike many as tepid.

And it is becoming clear that the recovery of the country, including the capping of 500 burning oil wells and the clearing of several million land mines, is one or two years away.

More than a third of the 600,000 Kuwaitis are not even in the country this summer, Western diplomats say. Many of those who are here speak often of leaving permanently, while others look on the future with some apprehensiveness.

"For the short term, we will be consumed by this paranoia, this belief that we are totally dependent on our allies to protect us," said an opposition leader, Mubarak Adwani.

Kuwait City is no longer the smoldering mess that greeted soldiers of the American-led coalition when they arrived in the capital five months ago.

The supermarkets are stocked with fresh fruit, bottles of Perrier, and choice cuts of beef. The car dealerships are packed with new GM Buicks, Chrysler Jeeps, and Japanese Isuzus. Clean water runs from the taps, and new air conditioners hum inside the lavish villas to ward off the furnace-like summer heat.

But the outward affluence, and a tentative government plan to give every Kuwaiti family $70,000 in compensation, has not blunted the bitterness and fear that many Kuwaitis feel.

An estimated 2,000 Kuwaitis and Kuwaiti residents who vanished during the occupation and war remain missing, many taken by the Iraqi secret police and never heard from again. The Iraqi authorities have so far disclaimed any knowledge of their whereabouts.

Kuwaiti officials, and especially the reclusive emir, Sheik Jaber Ahmed Sabah, are largely absent from public view. The 63-year-old sheik, who took 15 days to return to his country after liberation, spends his time in the Bayan Palace, an edifice built largely of Roquefort-like Carrara marble, down to the trash bins. He has left the running of the country to the crown prince and prime minister, Sheik Saad Abdullah Sabah.

The government, composed largely of the men who held power at the time of the Iraqi invasion, says it plans to hold parliamentary elections in 1992 -- at least for the 65,000 Kuwaiti men who are eligible to vote. It has promised to restore the suspended articles of the 1962 constitution and hinted that women might be given the vote. But all other plans for political and social change remain vague.

Censorship, which obscured the Iraqi threat before the invasion, remains in place. The government-controlled newspaper, the New Dawn, is so obtuse Kuwaitis refer to it as "the New Dark."

"The country has no sense of direction," said Mohammed Sagr, the editor of a newspaper called Al Qabbas. "If the government has decided how the country will be run, they have yet to tell us."

Nonetheless, martial law has been lifted, human rights abuses against Palestinians and Iraqis have been curtailed, and the military courts, which prosecuted people accused of collaborating on what often seemed like thin evidence, have been abolished.

The Sabah family, however, has failed to regain the confidence it lost when its officials and soldiers hotfooted it down the coast to Saudi Arabia just in front of the advancing Iraqi troops, many Kuwaitis say.

The government has called for a "new Kuwait" that will include a reduction in the country's heavy dependence on foreign guest workers.

Kuwaitis, who do not collect their own garbage or often $l administer their own businesses, have relied on some 1.6 million foreign workers, including 400,000 Palestinians, who were the core of the country's teachers, bankers and professionals. The number of guest workers is to be trimmed to 600,000, so Kuwaitis will no longer be a minority in their own country.

Kuwaiti officials estimate that it will take $20 billion to $30 billion to repair the looting and damage done by Iraq during the seven months of occupation.

nTC Crews fighting to put out the fires in the oil fields have managed to cap about 200 wells, but they have at least 500 more to bring under control. Still to be tackled are many of the hardest wells, where wellheads are buried under flaming pools of residue. Firefighters expect some of these fires to take weeks or months to extinguish.

The country has begun to produce oil in small quantities and is scheduled to fill its second tanker on Monday.

Each day Kuwait loses an estimated $120 million in oil revenues from the Iraqi sabotage.

But while the government strives for more self-sufficiency, the work of reconstruction, including the battle to cap the wells, has largely been left to foreign contractors and the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

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