Kuwait closely watches Afghan war

Gratitude to U.S., loyalty to Islam divide nation

War On Terrorism : The World

November 14, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUWAIT CITY - Ten years ago, they rejoiced when their capital was freed after the withdrawal of Iraqi troops retreating under a barrage of bullets and bombs fired by a United States-led coalition.

Yesterday, Kuwaitis watched from afar as Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, was liberated after the sudden retreat of Taliban troops.

For a few, the scenes in Kabul brought back memories of the final hours of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. But for many, the developments brought a swirl of mixed emotions, along with unanswered questions about what comes next in the United States' global war against terrorism.

"We were expecting them to take Kabul," said Ali Al-Baghli, a prominent lawyer and former oil minister, as news filtered in of the Northern Alliance's entry into the Afghan capital. And he is hoping the American effort won't stop in Afghanistan: He likens the Taliban to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, "two faces of the same coin."

"Our main concern is Iraq," he said. "We know the security of the region is in the hands of the United States - not the Arab League, the Islamic Conference. We have to admit that. After getting rid of the Taliban, we'd like to see the United States get rid of Saddam Hussein."

Ever since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Kuwait's government has publicly supported the United States, a stance reaffirmed last week by Foreign Minister Sheik Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah when he met in Washington with President Bush.

Yet last month, half of Kuwait's 50-member parliament called on the United States to halt its military campaign, a sign of the political power of the country's Muslim conservatives.

The bombing has been a source of endless conversation at the country's diwania, the weekly gatherings where friends sit, talk and socialize for hours over cups of tea. The gatherings are a vital part of political life here.

At one such meeting last night, 15 men discussed the war as they watched the Pentagon briefing on the Arabic satellite television station Al Jazeera. They were transfixed by the video of American bombs hitting targets in Afghanistan. But they were also troubled.

"We think what happened in America [Sept. 11] is a big crime," one man said. "But what is happening in Afghanistan is also a crime."

Many liberals, though, contend that the country's "silent majority" favors America's actions.

Old loyalties and old fears tie many people here to the United States. They recall American soldiers as liberators and admit they are still needed as protection against Iraq.

Earlier this week, Mahmoud Al-Bader, a burly pediatric surgeon, recalled Kuwait's liberation, when his children traded Kuwaiti flags to American soldiers for tiny American flag insignia patches. "That is not an old thing," he said. "All the Kuwaitis remember that."

But even as he expressed support for the United States, he worried that "America has a track record of starting jobs and not finishing them."

"America can afford to protect itself while the rest of the world can't," he said. "These [terrorists] will start attacking the weakest link. ... Vulnerable places like Kuwait could be a target."

"Our worry is [Osama] bin Laden will die and terrorism will be as it is," he added. "Then we'll be left holding the can - that whoever supported America will have to deal with vindictive people."

Others say that if America is serious about fighting terrorism, it should sort out the problems between Israelis and Palestinians.

"This is why America does not get the full support from the Arab world," said an American-educated investment banker. "Be true to your freedoms and your principles. That is where you are failing in the Middle East."

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