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Iraq: Missile War On Kuwait Causes Fear But No Casualties

As U.S.-led forces invade Iraq, Baghdad has sought to strike back by launching about a dozen missiles against Kuwait. The counterattacks have caused no casualties, but they are keeping the emirate very much on edge.

Kuwait City, 22 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British forces are now well into Iraq. But Kuwaitis remain uncertain whether Baghdad has any more missiles to launch against the emirate that was the main staging base for the coalition assault.

Over the past two days, Baghdad has fired more than a dozen missiles against Kuwait. The missiles have targeted U.S. and British troop-staging areas and Kuwait City, making the attacks appear to be both military strikes and simple acts of revenge.

The missiles cover the gamut of Baghdad's somewhat unorthodox ballistic arsenal. They vary from small Chinese-made Silkworm antiship missiles, fired from the desert against U.S. bases in northern Kuwait, to heavy Soviet-designed Scud missiles which have landed well south of Kuwait City.

The attacks have caused no casualties. But they have frightened Kuwaitis by placing them in the middle of an unexpected missile war even as U.S.-led forces unleash an overwhelming assault on Iraq's military.

Our correspondent witnessed the destruction of an Iraqi Scud over northern Iraq yesterday. As the missile neared Kuwait City, flying too fast for the eye to see, suddenly there were three successive explosions in the sky, caused by a trio of Patriot antimissile missiles, also invisible, hitting the Scud.

Thick smoke rings from the explosions hung in the sky for minutes as Kuwaiti and U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint below donned gas masks against possible fallout from any chemical weapon. When birds in the area continued singing, the soldiers gradually removed their protective gear, reassured that the destroyed missile had carried only a conventional warhead.

The single Scud missile launched yesterday contrasted with some 10 missiles of various types aimed at Kuwait on 20 March. Several of those missiles were also Scuds, including two that fell into the sea near a major oil refinery complex south of the capital.

Faisal al-Atrash, who owns a carpet store near the refinery, said he was driving toward his shop when the missiles exploded in the sea nearby at 10 p.m. that night.

"We heard a massive explosion but we didn't see anything. I was on the way [to the shop] and I heard the explosion and thought it must be very close by the sound of it. But thank God it was far away from our shops and fell into the sea," al-Atrash said.

As he and his employees swept away the broken glass from his shattered storefront window, he said he is still assessing the damage to his stock of wall-to-wall carpeting.

"The damage is not trivial, it's more than 2,000 Kuwaiti dinars [$6,000]. The glass show-window and some of the goods inside were damaged. Some of the rolls of carpeting were torn up by the flying glass," al-Atrash said.

Kuwaitis have taken much comfort from the protection provided by 10 Patriot batteries, mostly stationed near the Iraqi border. Kuwaiti and U.S. officials have not given exact details of how many Iraqi missiles were shot down by Patriots and how many got past the defenses. But the lack of casualties to date has given the batteries hero status in the emirate.

A Kuwaiti defense official, Colonel Abdulrahman al-Othman, told reporters at a recent press conference that the emirate is fully protected by the antimissile batteries. "I would like to inform you, the Kuwaiti citizens, all the friends and the residents of Kuwait, that the Patriots are ready to attack any missiles from the Iraqi regime," al-Othman said.

He offered no further details for fear, he said, of divulging military secrets useful to the enemy.

The attacks on Kuwait may be intended to demonstrate to the Iraqi public that the regime has potent weapons with which to strike back at its attackers. But when Baghdad is being hit with overwhelming force in what Washington calls a bombing campaign to "awe and shock" the Iraqi military into surrender, any Iraqi-U.S. missile war is a lopsided one indeed.

Unlike the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq fired some 88 Scuds -- mostly at Israel and Saudi Arabia -- Baghdad is believed today to have no more than a score of the now aging missiles in its arsenal. Iraq also has an undetermined number of newer but shorter-range liquid-fuel and solid-propellant rockets.

Baghdad voluntarily destroyed dozens of its new Al-Sumud 2 missiles over the past weeks in a gesture of cooperation with the UN. Arms inspectors had ordered Baghdad to destroy the missiles because they exceeded the 150 kilometers range permitted by UN disarmament guidelines.

By contrast, the U.S. and Britain are deploying the most sophisticated cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs available in the world today.