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Kuwait: 12 Years Later, Many Still Await Word On Fate Of Loved Ones

Twelve years after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, more than 600 Kuwaitis detained by Iraqi troops remain unaccounted for by Baghdad. Iraq has an obligation under UN Security Council resolutions to release those who are still alive or to account for those who have died. As RFE/RL reports, Baghdad's failure to comply with those obligations is one of the reasons an overwhelming majority of Kuwaitis now support a U.S.-led war to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Hawali, Kuwait; 20 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Rajaa Marzouk begins crying when she talks about what happened to her son, Ahmed al-Fuhaid, in early 1991 during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

Al-Fuhaid was a 19-year-old student when he was arrested by Iraqi troops and charged with being a member of the Kuwaiti resistance. Iraqi documents captured after the 1991 Gulf War prove that her son was transferred to a prison in Basra, Iraq, when the Iraqi Army retreated from Kuwait.

Iraq has so far failed to disclose information about more than 600 missing Kuwaitis, despite Baghdad's obligations under a series of UN Security Council resolutions to release all prisoners like al-Fuhaid, or to account for those who may have died in detention.

If he is still alive somewhere in an Iraqi prison, Marzouk's son would now be 31 years old. Marzouk, like many other Kuwaitis angered by Baghdad's noncompliance on the issue, says she thinks a U.S.-led war to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is her last chance to learn the fate of her son and other missing prisoners.

"We are not afraid of the war. If the war will bring back our missing loved ones, or let us know about what has happened to them, it is all right. We welcome the war," she said. "Saddam didn't do anything good to this country. He hasn't done anything good for his neighbors. I am praying to God that we will get rid of Saddam because our beloved ones were collected from the streets and the schools, from anywhere, without committing any crimes. All we want now is to know something about the fate of our beloved ones. We cannot accept it when Saddam says that he doesn't know anything about them."

Baghdad claims that all Kuwaiti prisoners transferred to Iraqi prisons during the occupation of Kuwait escaped during the failed Iraqi Shi'ite uprising against Saddam's regime. That uprising began in early 1991 when a U.S.-led international coalition stormed the country.

Baghdad also says that all of its records about those prisoners were destroyed in the Shi'ite riots. And it says the burial sites of those who died before the uprising are inaccessible because they have since been covered by land mines.

But one of Kuwait's chief negotiators with Iraq, Muhammad al-Haddad, accuses Iraq of lying and says Saddam's regime is being uncooperative on the issue.

"All the Kuwaiti people are, in fact, hurting because of this," he said. "They think the Iraqi government, the Iraqi regime, the Iraqi authorities are not honest in dealing with all issues -- not only the POWs , [but] all issues, [including disarmament]. They maneuver around. They do not say things clearly and frankly. They are not even honest with themselves."

Al-Haddad is a board member of Kuwait's National Committee for Missing Persons and Prisoner-of-War Affairs. He thinks some of the 600 missing Kuwaiti prisoners are still alive in Iraqi prisons. He believes Saddam has been holding them for use as bargaining chips in the future. Kuwait, he said, will never stop trying to discover the truth about what happened to them. "The issue of the POWs is a crucial issue for us. We care about it, and we will follow it up until we come to an adequate ending for it."

Abdul Hamid al-Attar said he feels certain Iraq is lying about the missing prisoners because he, himself, had been repeatedly lied to about the detention of his son. It was in September 1990, when al-Attar's son -- also a teenage student at the time -- was arrested in Kuwait City by Iraqi troops on grounds that he was a member of the Kuwaiti resistance. Despite repeated denials about the arrest by the occupying Iraqi troops, al-Attar managed in early 1991 to find the prison in Kuwait where his son was being held.

Al-Attar says he had a heated argument with the Iraqi prison guards when they denied any knowledge about his son. It was then, he says, that his son heard his voice and shouted for help from his cell.

Al-Attar says an Iraqi guard pulled out a pistol, fired it at his foot and told him the next bullet would be in his head unless he left immediately. Al-Attar says that was the last time he heard his son's voice.

In 1996, Baghdad admitted that al-Attar's son was taken into Iraq by retreating Iraqi troops. His case is one of 126 that Iraq has replied to, albeit inconclusively, when presented with evidence found in Iraqi documents captured by the Kuwaiti government. But Baghdad continues to deny having information about the whereabouts of al-Attar's son. There has been no answer from Baghdad on the other 479 cases.

That has left al-Attar puzzled about the lack of pressure from the international community for Iraq to comply with its UN obligations on missing prisoners. "Why is the question of the POWs not included in [UN] Resolution [1441] by itself as an item?" he asked. "The United Nations and European countries, and everyone, what they are talking about is that Saddam Hussein must cooperate with the [UN weapons] inspectors [and] must give up his weapons of mass destruction. But they are not urging him [enough] to solve the problems with Kuwait."

Kuwaiti negotiator al-Haddad said the answer is clear: "The disarmament is something different from the POWs [issue]. That is why it is getting the whole interest and the whole attention of the world compared to the POWs. But I am not going to say that we are alone. We have had some help from all of the Arab heads of state, from China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, even from Russia and definitely the United States. But they cannot do much about it. They cannot say if you do not release these 605 [people], we are going to war with you. But they can say that about the weapons [of mass destruction]."

Still, al-Haddad says it is frustrating for Kuwaitis to see the issue of the missing prisoners treated as a lower priority than Iraq's disarmament obligations. He says Kuwaitis want to see Iraq comply with all of the surrender terms it agreed to when the Gulf War ended.

"We have [UN Security Council] resolutions that concern the POWs. We have [UN Resolution] 1284, and we have [Resolution] 686 [and Resolution] 687. All [are] resolutions related to the POWs. The Iraqis, for them, this is not their priority. They know they are obligated. They have a commitment. They have to implement all these resolutions," al-Haddad said.

Investigations by independent nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirm that more than 600 Kuwaitis who were detained by the Iraqis in 1990 and 1991 have remained unaccounted for since the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

A report in August 2000 by the special rapporteur for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that Saddam's regime has the ability to clarify the fate or whereabouts of those still missing. That UN report said what appears to be lacking is the "necessary political will" on the part of Iraqi authorities to cooperate.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which was supposed to be granted access to prisoners as a term of Iraq's 1991 surrender, also has complained repeatedly about Iraq's noncompliance.

And in December 2001, the UN General Assembly called on Hussein's government to cooperate with a special commission that had been set up to establish the whereabouts of several hundred missing persons. The Tripartite Commission is made up of Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, and its meetings are monitored by officials from the United States and Britain.

Al-Haddad said he has met with Iraqi officials 62 times during the last 12 years to discuss the fate of the prisoners. But he said those talks have not resulted in any breakthroughs, and that all he has heard from the Iraqi side are excuses.

At the most recent meeting, conducted in Amman last weekend, al-Haddad said one of his Iraqi counterparts claimed to have forgotten important documents he had earlier promised to deliver. That round of talks ended with the head of the Kuwaiti delegation, Ibrahim al-Shaheen, accusing Baghdad of failing, once again, to cooperate. The Iraqi delegates refused to comment.

The next meeting of the Tripartite Commission is scheduled for 2 March. Al-Haddad emphasized that Kuwaitis' anger about the missing prisoners is directed solely at Saddam Hussein's regime -- and not at ordinary Iraqi citizens. "Historically speaking, Kuwait is a good friend of the Iraqi people, as the Iraqi people are good friends to us. We have been living in peace with the Iraqi people. We love the Iraqi people, as the Iraqi people love us. We share the same problem. We share the problem of this regime [of Saddam Hussein]. This regime is giving us a hard time, as Saddam is giving the Iraqi people a hard time. We still have a problem that is not yet solved with the Iraqi regime -- the POWs issue. We look forward to having help from the Iraqi people, and if they help us, we definitely will never forget this. God willing, the end of this regime will arrive and there will be new hope for all Iraqis to live in peace and in democracy," he said.

Like many relatives of those still missing, al-Haddad concluded that regime change in Baghdad may be the last hope for discovering the truth about the fate of loved ones.