- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

KUWAIT CITY, March 3 (UPI) — Bright skies, rush-hour traffic jams and the normal sounds of commerce in glistening shopping centers and rundown souks could give the impression of life as normal in the capital of the oil-rich emirate of Kuwait, but with Iraq just 1 1/2 hours away by road, it is anything but.

Government troops in camouflaged, machine-gun equipped armored vehicles are outside major hotels and government buildings; evacuation exercises are conducted at hospitals and schools and expatriate workers and others who plan to remain in the country are reportedly stocking up on essential supplies, especially water.

Shortages have not appeared, but supplies of bottled water are dwindling as military troops basing in the country buy on the local market.

"KPC (Kuwait Petroleum Company) Adopts Strict Measures," an inside page article was headlined in the English-language Kuwait Times. "Don't Leave …," says another about a health department appeal to Filipino and Indian nurses in local hospitals.

With more than 100,000 U.S., British and Gulf country troops in the country and the standoff between the United States and Iraq continuing toward a cataclysmic showdown, it's little wonder some people are jittery.

Kuwait, a tad smaller than New Jersey, knows all about such cataclysms. In 1990, it was invaded by Iraq troops, who occupied the country and ruled with an iron fist for seven months before U.S.-led coalition forces expelled Saddam Hussein's legions, which looted the country as they hurriedly left. Since then Kuwait's small military force has regularly had exercises with U.S. troops, which have stockpiled material in the country.

A relatively small contingent of U.S. troops have been regularly deployed in Kuwait as a visible symbol of Washington's continued support for Kuwaiti sovereignty and as part of operations to enforce a no-fly zone over southern Iraq, but by the end of the month the figure is expected to top 150,000 as Washington continues to defy international political hand-wringing and insist Iraq disarm itself of chemical and biological weapons now — immediately — or be forced to do so by a "coalition of the willing."

Twelve years of what President George W. Bush has called "games and deception" over suspected weapons stockpiles and non-compliance with international disarmament mandates is at an end, in Washington's opinion.

Kuwait, with a smattering of other Gulf states, are virtually alone in the region to giving tangible support to the push to eliminate the threat posed by the Iraqi dictator and the proscribed weaponry he was known to possess in the late 1990s.

Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Iraq and where U.S. forces are based, is opposed to action unless it is explicitly authorized by the United Nations. It is also still unclear about what help it would contribute if the U.N. Security Council should sanction action.

Turkey, where Washington expected to stage about 60,000 troops to open a northern front against Iraq, now appears out of the operational mix. Despite promises of economic aid by Washington and a showdown in NATO to overcome French, German and Belgian obstacles to giving it precautionary military assistance, its parliament has scuttled a necessary resolution allowing U.S. deployment there.

Indeed, opposition in the Arab world was underlined in a meeting of its leaders in Egypt this week, where they made it abundantly clear they want no part of an Iraq dust up. Their alignment appears to be with France and Germany, which want Iraq to be given more time to comply with previous broken agreements.

A major concern for Kuwaitis is the possibility that if it should come to war to disarm Iraq and depose Saddam, not all the bloodshed and destruction would be on the other side of the 150-mile-long frontier. Saddam, smelling imminent invasion, could launch pre-emptive missile strikes of allied forces in northern Kuwait. A U.S. newspaper report Monday, quoting U.S. officials saying Iraq Scud missiles were within striking distance of Kuwait City, has done nothing to lessen anxiety.

"Many people have left," a European diplomat told United Press International. "Many embassies have cut down on staff and also advised nationals to leave if they are non-essential personnel."

Among those issuing such advisories are Italy, Spain, the United States, Britain, Austria, the Netherlands and France.

"They (the French) didn't do so directly," the diplomat said. "They did it very discreetly — there are a lot of nuances in how they advised people to go."

A telephone call to The English School of Kuwait results in a recording that says, "We're temporarily closed until further notice."

The American International School has been closed until late March because of the risk of war. The British School of Kuwait carries on but with fewer students and staff.

"The British School of Kuwait is not closed and we have no plans to do so," said principal Graham Hawkins. "Clearly, some of our students and staff have gone because of the situation, especially students from Western countries, have gone temporarily."

Hawkins said The British School, which serves more than 50 nationalities, said about 20 percent of its students have gone, leaving about 1,000. Half the school staff has also left.

"It is difficult," he said. "But clearly we feel an obligation to our students and their parents."

Meanwhile, an incoming flood of visitors has developed — reporters, cameramen, photographers and television crews awaiting the expected push into Iraq, which could begin in just a couple of week's if President Bush gives the go-ahead.

"We've approved visas or given permission for about 1,400 journalists to enter Kuwait," an information ministry official said. "We're beginning to feel like the immigration department."

That influx is not unwelcome to the hotels — average room rate is about $200 plus daily, dinner buffet about $35 per head — which have lost tourist and business customers, and to the taxi services, which have seen regular expatriate clientele dwindle.

"So many of my regular customers have gone," said Sayed Mujahid, and Indian. "I think maybe I should take a vacation, go back to India for two months. "Maybe this time I'll get married while I am home and come back when business is better."

An exodus of foreign workers like the taxi driver could cut deep into the nation's economy. Kuwait has an estimated population of a little more than 2.1 million. Slightly more than half that number are non citizens, who run the shops, staff the hospitals, serve in the hotels, drive the taxis, fix the highways and perform many other services.

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