As a massive buildup of U.S. and British troops continues in Kuwait for a possible war against Iraq, Kuwaiti authorities are conducting a series of air-raid and evacuation drills involving thousands of people.
Kuwait City, 18 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An air-raid siren announces an incoming Iraqi missile attack at Kuwait's largest electricity and water-desalination plant -- the Doha Power Plant West, about 110 kilometers south of the Iraqi border.
Fire trucks, ambulances, and other emergency rescue vehicles race to a scene of carnage that is partially obscured by clouds of purple, yellow, and gray gas. Nearby, some 1,400 workers are boarding buses that take them away from the strategically vital facility.
Bodies of blast victims lay scattered near water and oil pipes that snake around the industrial complex. One man's clothing has been burnt from his back by an incendiary blast. Another man lies motionless with a wide gash in his neck -- a macabre image of collateral damage caused by this imaginary Iraqi attack.
The scene is one of many taking place at strategic facilities across Kuwait this week as the country prepares for an Iraqi counterattack they fear will take place in the event of any U.S.-led military action against Baghdad. The volunteers are pretending to test the coordination of Kuwait's emergency rescue services.
Captain Khaled S. al-Mutairi of Kuwait's General Department of Civil Defense gazes at the rescue efforts. "These are protective procedures taken in cooperation with the General Department of Civil Defense due to the current events in the region, as a kind of securit." he said.
Kuwaiti officials say they fear the Doha Power Plant will be targeted because of its location and strategic importance. It is the largest of six power plants in Kuwait. Its oil-fired generators provide 30 percent of the country's electricity, and its desalination facility takes seawater from the nearby Doha Port to provide 40 percent of the country's water supply.
Also nearby is Camp Doha, the main U.S. military base in Kuwait since Iraqi troops were driven from the country by a U.S.-led multinational coalition in 1991. A series of Patriot-10 antimissile batteries already are in place and can be seen pointing toward the sky to defend against incoming missiles.
Al-Mutairi told RFE/RL that he considers the drill to be a success. "Everyone is doing well, including the firemen and the medical staff in cooperation with the Department of Civil Defense."
Shortcomings in yesterday's drill were clear, however, to the foreign reporters invited inside the top-security complex to watch. In one instance, a fireman passed over an injury victim without pausing to investigate or offer help.
Asked why he didn't make an effort to help the injured man, the fireman said it was not his job -- and that, anyway, he is not trained in basic first-aid techniques. He said an ambulance crew would help the victim. About 15 minutes later, a medical team finally arrived to help the man.
A half-hour after the air-raid sirens first sounded, Captain al-Mutairi questioned a plant manager about the response.
Al-Mutairi: "Do you have only one injured person here?"
Manager: "No. We have two here, and we have been told that a third person is injured over there."
Al-Mutairi: "Is there only one ambulance?"
Manager: "Yes. And we asked for more."
The manager later told RFE/RL that the drill exposed faults in the ability of rescue workers to coordinate their efforts. He said he hopes the exercises will help eliminate such problems in the event of a real Iraqi attack. But with Washington warning that war against Iraq could be weeks, rather than months, away, there appears to be little time remaining for the rescuers to improve their readiness.
Even as yesterday's drill was being conducted, more of the mobile Patriot-10 antimissile systems could be seen driving north on Kuwait's main highway to the Iraqi border, mixed with convoys of American and British armor and troop carriers.
In fact, more than 100,000 U.S. and British soldiers already are poised in Kuwait, waiting for an order to attack Iraq. And more are arriving each day by sea and air.
Many Kuwaitis have left the country during the past month in fear of a possible war. Foreign workers, who comprise the majority of Kuwait's residents, also have been advised or ordered to leave by their own governments. Kuwait's Interior Ministry has warned foreigners that internal security could be difficult to maintain in the event of war.
Meanwhile, Kuwaiti officials continue their civil-defense preparations. An air-raid drill similar to yesterday's exercise at the Doha Power Plant is scheduled for tomorrow at Kuwait International Airport.
The government is planning a closed-door session of parliament to discuss the security situation. That session was announced after weeks of criticism by two Islamic parties in parliament about the lack of public information on safety plans amid worsening regional developments.
Sources within Kuwait's Civil Defense Department say as many as 2 million gas masks are expected to arrive in the country by the end of February for distribution to the public. But the civil-defense chief, Mustafa Jumaa, is warning Kuwaitis and foreign residents not to exaggerate the likelihood of an Iraqi poison-gas attack.
Baghdad has told Kuwait that it will strike any U.S. military bases in Kuwait if the country is used to launch a U.S.-led assault on Iraq.
In an attempt to ease fears, Kuwait's first deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, is saying publicly that Kuwait is the safest country in the Persian Gulf. But Shaykh al-Sabah admits the threat of an Iraqi attack is real.