With a U.S.-led war against Iraq now possibly just days away, Kuwaitis say they are resigned to the likelihood of a conflict. Many Kuwaiti citizens say they are staying for patriotic reasons, while many foreign workers -- who make up some 60 percent of the population -- fear leaving could jeopardize their jobs. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel walked around Kuwait City to learn how people are coping with the prospect of war.
Kuwait, 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In Kuwait City's central market the talk is entirely of coming war. But almost no one is leaving the country for safety.
Instead, the tone of the conversation swings between happiness that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- who occupied Kuwait in 1990 -- could soon be toppled, and religious fatalism that the safety of the emirate's residents is in God's hands alone to decide.
That fatalism recognizes the possibility that Hussein may possess and use the weapons of mass destruction that the U.S. and Britain say they will attack Iraq to destroy. It also recognizes the possibility that Baghdad may have medium-range Scud missiles and fire them at Kuwait for providing the staging ground for a U.S.-led invasion.
Muhammad Taher al-Baghli is the owner of a prosperous boutique which sells men's robes for traditional weddings. The robes, which are floor-length capes embroidered with gold thread imported from France, are an essential part of the full Gulf Arab costume with headdress worn by bridegrooms.
For men marrying on a cool winter evening, al-Baghli has capes made from the imported wool of Peruvian llamas. For warmer nights, he has robes of light cotton -- all of them woven in Kuwait in one of the emirate's few non-oil industries.
The middle-aged businessman told a visitor that he and the other merchants in the market are waiting with anticipation for what he calls the "zero hour" -- the moment the war starts. "As for us, we await the zero hour when the attack is started on Iraq. [Saddam] invaded us, he is insane and an annoyance and a brutal man. So all of us in the market are awaiting the zero hour to rid us of this tyrant," al-Baghli said.
Al-Baghli, who said his shop and warehouse were looted during the 1990 invasion, said he hopes Hussein's fall will bring a new period of regional peace and economic growth. He said that before the invasion, his shop was gradually building up an export market to other Gulf states. But the occupation of Kuwait set his business so far back that Saudi competitors now dominate the regional robe market instead.
Asked if he or anyone in his extended family has left Kuwait for safety abroad, the shop owner said no. He said he has not heard of any mass exodus of Kuwaitis, even though many North American and European expatriates evacuated their families weeks ago. "Right now, I see a normal situation, with normal travel for medical care or business, maybe. But no mass exodus at all due to fear of war," he said.
That position reflects a sense of confidence in Kuwait's security that the emirate's government has worked hard to maintain throughout the Iraq crisis.
The government has assured citizens that they are well protected by batteries of American Patriot antimissile missiles, which are positioned in the north of the country and by the Kuwait City airport.
The Patriots are intended to shoot down any Scud missiles Iraq may have remaining from the Gulf War, when it fired several at Saudi Arabia and scores at Israel. It is not known whether Baghdad has been able to develop chemical or biological warheads for any Scuds or whether the warheads could disperse such agents effectively against a target.
Similarly, the Kuwaiti government has assured residents that Iraq's known arsenal of short-range missiles would not be able to reach population centers and would fall harmlessly in the desert. Iraq is permitted under the UN sanctions regime to develop battlefield missiles with a range of less than 150 kilometers but arms inspectors have found some missiles, including Baghdad's new Al-Sumud, that have been tested to ranges exceeding that limit. Baghdad in recent weeks has destroyed dozens of Al-Sumud missiles in a disarmament gesture.
Kuwaiti Information Minister Shaykh Ahmad al-Fahed al-Jaber al-Sabah repeated at a widely televised press conference yesterday that the emirate is adequately defended against any Iraqi missile attacks. "We think we have prepared all that is necessary for an emergency plan. First, we think that with our cooperation with the U.S. group, with its satellites, with the latest technology, that now there is a new generation of the [Patriot missile] batteries. And we have almost 10 batteries here in Kuwait. And we think this kind of missile, with the latest technology, can destroy not only Scuds but even the warheads of this kind of missile," he said.
He also said that the government saw no need to distribute gas masks to the public beyond military and rescue personnel and oil workers in Kuwait's northern fields. "We think it is not necessary for the government to offer [gas masks] for each person or citizen in this country, although we already have [done so] for our oil sector for our military in the north of Kuwait. And this is [also] the opinion of the professional teams that are here just to make sure that if there is any attack with chemical or biological weapons, which they will deal with," he said.
A 450-strong Czech and Slovak nuclear, biological and chemical battalion is deployed in Kuwait City to deal with the effects of any such attack upon the population.
With government confidence high, local newspapers report only modest sales of gas masks, which are available in some hardware and other stores. A few large supermarkets are also stocking lightweight suits made of paper which give temporary protection against some chemical and biological agents but their sales, too, are sporadic. Some Kuwaitis have created "safe rooms" in their houses to protect against possible chemical or biological attack, much as Israelis did during the first Gulf War.
Still, if many Kuwaiti citizens say they are not afraid to stay through any conflict, the mood among the emirate's many foreign workers is more anxious. The foreign workers, who staff much of Kuwait's service industry and perform menial labor, make up some 60 percent of the population and hail mostly from Pakistan, India, and the Philippines as well as some Arab countries.
At the central market, Khuzena Sajjad Husain staffs a boutique selling mobile phones and accessories. An Indian, he -- like other foreign workers -- owes his job to his employer, who sponsored his visa. Under Kuwaiti law, he needs his sponsor's permission for many major decisions, including finding a different job or leaving the country. His sponsor has the power to terminate his visa and employment at will.
Husain said that many foreign workers dread the war because they have been unable to prepare financially for any price shocks it could bring. He said the last months have seen business fall off in expectation of the conflict and made it hard for workers to save money to buy staples should there be hoarding and price increases.
"All the people are just thinking about the war, they are thinking what will we do about our families, about our businesses, because for the last two months business has gone down and down and down. So they are very worried about everything, they don't have money, they don't have enough to survive anything that might happen," Husain said.
So far, there has been no panic buying in the stores and the government has announced that rationing coupons will be issued if necessary to prevent it.
An opinion survey published today in Kuwait's daily "Arab Times" showed that some 90 percent of Kuwaiti citizens are in favor of a likely U.S.-led war against Iraq. The survey also showed that some 90 percent of Kuwaitis do not support the war against Iraq if it does not topple their old enemy Saddam Hussein.