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Iraq: Kuwaitis Re-live Gulf Crisis In Treason Trial

  • Charles Recknagel

The trial of the man Iraq made the head of its puppet government in Kuwait when it invaded the emirate 10 years ago has Kuwaitis re-living the tense days of the Gulf crisis. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 27 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, one of the first things it did was create a new government to rule the emirate in Baghdad's name.

But the overnight creation lasted less than a week. Almost immediately, Baghdad decided instead to annex Kuwait as a province. The puppet government was disbanded and became a mere footnote to the invasion and the Gulf War which followed.

Now, almost 10 years later, that ephemeral government is very much on Kuwaitis' minds again. The reason: its head is on trial in Kuwait City for treason and the case is creating an emotional debate over whether he deliberately collaborated with Baghdad or -- like other Kuwaitis -- was merely forced to do Iraq's bidding.

The defendant is Alaa Hussein Ali, whom Iraq made prime minister of Kuwait soon after its troops crossed the border on the night of August 2, 1990. When a Western-led coalition army forced Iraq from Kuwait in the Gulf War the following year, Ali went to Iraq and lived there and in Turkey until 1998, when he fled Iraq and was granted asylum in Norway.

In 1993, after the Gulf War, the restored government of Kuwait lost no time in sentencing the short-term premier to death in absentia. But he did not set foot in Kuwait until the beginning of this year, when he came back voluntarily, saying that he was determined to prove his innocence. He also said that he had been promised a pardon by Kuwait's information minister, something that official has since denied.

The proceedings have riveted the public because Ali, now 41 years old, has maintained he is an ordinary Kuwaiti who was forced by the Iraqis to serve them. He says that's a choice any of his countrymen might have faced if they had been unlucky enough to be chosen.

Defense lawyers told the court that Ali, then a colonel in the Kuwaiti army reserve, was captured by the Iraqis the day after the invasion as he was heading, in uniform, to a camp to join resistant fighters. They said that Ali's younger brother also tried to reach the camp and succeeded -- later winning a decoration from the Kuwait government along with some 2,200 other resistance fighters.

But the prosecution has rejected the contention that Ali was the victim of bad luck and argued the defendant went out to welcome the Iraqis and join their ranks. As the lawyers concluded their arguments earlier this month, the prosecution called for upholding Ali's original death sentence.

Much attention has focused on the fact that, after the Gulf War, all members of the puppet government except for Ali immediately returned to Kuwait from Iraq and were cleared of wrongdoing. Several of them have testified that in the beginning Ali was as afraid to be enrolled in Iraq's service as they were. But they said that later he started to take his role as prime minister seriously and even threatened to have them executed if they did not obey his orders.

To gather more evidence, Kuwait originally said it also would seek statements from prominent Iraqi officials who have fled Iraq since the Gulf crisis and have detailed knowledge of the period. Some of those officials are now key figures in the Iraqi opposition in exile.

But the contacts between Kuwait and the opposition figures broke down over public statements by the prosecutor that the former Iraqi officials have Kuwaiti blood on their hands because of their own roles at the time. Those charges prompted angry rebuttals by the former Iraqi officials, who have since refused to cooperate with Kuwait.

One of the former officials is Wafeek Al-Samarra'i, a former military intelligence chief who fled to London in 1995. He told Radio Free Iraq in a telephone interview that the Kuwaiti officials were more interested in slamming Iraq then in gaining former Iraqi officials' cooperation.

"We won't allow some pygmies and notorious people to harm our country and our countrymen. That is why we responded to these people in a very strong way. We told them: don't force us to reveal things which will change a lot of equations [and which you yourselves will regret]."

The Kuwaiti prosecutor has also angered Iraqi opposition figures by charging publicly that Ali willingly cooperated with Baghdad because he is partly of Iraqi parentage and has other personal ties with the country. Ali's mother and wife are Iraqi and he attended university in Baghdad before the 1990 invasion. In response, Iraqi opposition figures have called the implication that Ali cooperated with Saddam's regime because he is partially of Iraqi descent -- as are a large number of other Kuwaitis -- a racist charge.

As the debate over whether and why Ali collaborated with Saddam's invasion of Kuwait continues, the court is preparing to deliver its verdict next week. Presiding Judge Nayef Mutairat said earlier this month the court will rule on the case Wednesday (May 3).

But there is no guarantee the case -- or the debate surrounding it -- will end then. The tribunal's ruling can be appealed in two courts and there is every likelihood Ali will do so if he is found guilty.