Gulf war fresh in its mind, Kuwait keeps eye on Iraq

Decade after conflict, many still worrying about their neighbor

War On Terrorism

November 18, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABDALY, Kuwait - Wind, sand and swarms of flies keep company with a Kuwaiti border guard named Khaled, who between sips of tea lifts a metal gate when United Nations four-wheel-drive vehicles pass on a road that cuts to the heart of a cold peace.

Dressed in dark shades and a khaki uniform, with a pistol wedged in a shoulder holster, he looks north across the desert and a demilitarized zone that separates Kuwait from Iraq. Khaled points to a tiny flame - it's an oil refinery inside Iraq. He points to a crossroad in the distance - also in Iraq.

"They are no problem for us," he says. "My friends, the Americans, are here."

But like many in Kuwait, Khaled wonders about the future, wonders about the Americans, who have a few thousand troops stationed inside Kuwait, and of Iraq, which is still ruled by Saddam Hussein.

While much of the rest of the world focuses on the United States' war against global terrorism in Afghanistan, people in Kuwait keep their eyes on their neighbor.

For Kuwait, the gulf war is not some distant memory - it is a part of modern history, a swirl of invasion and liberation, rolling tanks and burning oil wells, fear of Iraq and appreciation of the U.S.-led coalition.

Hussein and his troops may be out of sight, but they are not out of mind in a country where war memories and mementos are never far away.

Artifacts from the 1990 Iraqi invasion can be seen while riding through a Kuwait City neighborhood, coming upon an old Iraqi T-55 tank, rusting on a slab of concrete placed in front of burned-out cars and a ruined home preserved as a "martyrs museum."

They can be found, too, in the shimmering marble lobby of the Sheraton Hotel. Near the elevator are pictures of what the hotel looked like after the gulf war - the hotel's facade was scorched, the lobby charred.

Old passions are kept alive inside the country's National Center for Prisoners of War, an ornate marble hall with a prayer mat in one corner, POW pictures on the walls and a gallery of POW photos behind symbolic black bars.

Kuwait contends that 605 prisoners are still unaccounted for from the gulf war. Iraq maintains that it has no more prisoners.

The standoff leaves many families in a state of limbo as they wait more than a decade for news from loved ones.

"If they are alive, we need information. If they are dead, we need corpses," says Abdul Hameed E. Al-Attar, spokesman for the National Committee for Missing and Prisoner of War Affairs. His son Jamal, then 24, was jailed by the Iraqis in September 1990 and hasn't been seen since.

Beyond the personal, there are the political and economic issues, such as bickering over which country controls a vast oil field that straddles the border.

Old fears have a way of resurfacing again in the local newspapers, which provided front-page coverage last week about alleged border incidents - a couple of Iraqis in uniform firing weapons and the explosion of what seemed to be a single mortar shell.

Before that, it was Iraqi political insider Tariq Aziz roiling local emotions when he was quoted as claiming that Kuwait was still part of Iraq and could be taken back with just part of a battalion.

And earlier this year, local sensibilities were easily unsettled by an Iraqi parliamentary proposal to redesign its flag to include Kuwait as part of the country's outline.

Add the recent talk by some Washington pundits to expand the war against terrorism and settle unfinished business in Iraq, and it's no surprise that Kuwaitis are focused on Iraq.

"I find it far-fetched the way people in the United States talk," says Abdulla al-Nibari, a liberal legislator in Kuwait's National Assembly. "It sends shivers, talking as if they want the justification [to attack Iraq]. Although we would very much like to get rid of Saddam Hussein, I don't think attacking Iraq would do that. It would give him popularity."

Despite the history and rhetoric, the border is an oasis of calm, a peaceful, if desolate, place in a region scarred by long-simmering hatred.

It's an hour by car to the border from Kuwait City, which spreads like a phoenix on the gulf, dotted with homes, malls, high-rises and high-speed highways.

A few thousand U.S. troops are based at Camp Doha, a military facility on the city's northwestern outskirts. The occasional armored personnel carrier can be seen on the roads.

Urban sprawl gives way to desert past Jahra as the six-lane highway sweeps past a few camel herds, white tents and flecks of garbage and old tires that dot the landscape.

Allied warplanes on patrol streak across the blue sky, their noisy engines heard even while one sits in a car with its air conditioning on full blast.

Few signs of war damage remain, although the twisted steel and scorched wreckage of an old electrical facility can be seen on the side of the road next to a rebuilt bottled-water plant.

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