WASHINGTON — ZOO animals. Street lamps. Mercedes Benzes, infant incubators, and a priceless 7,000-piece Islamic art collection. In what exiled Kuwaitis charge is one of the great looting sprees of modern times, all these items and many more have allegedly been stolen by Iraqi forces in Kuwait and shipped back to Baghdad. So much has been taken, say White House officials, that they worry the economic entity of Kuwait is being wiped off the map.
This dismantlement, plus reports of physical abuses by Iraqi troops, is being cited by administration officials as a trial to their patience. They seem to be implicitly warning Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that US-led multinational forces would launch military operations before seeing Kuwait reduced to a pile of sand.
``This is a story that is not told frequently enough,'' Secretary of State James Baker III told Congress Wednesday. ``It is the rape of Kuwait.''
President Bush went so far as to hint this week that the United States would seek war-crime trials of Iraqi leaders as a result of the Kuwait occupation. Iraq, for its part, is forging ahead with plans to try Bush in absentia, for denying children milk. Fifty expectant mothers will testify, the Iraqi Bar Association says.
This week Iraqi Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassim denied Bush's accusations of atrocities in Kuwait. ``The president of a big country should weigh his words. Otherwise he will sound like a clown who repeats everything he hears,'' Jassim said.
According to Kuwaiti exiles and US officials, Iraqi dismantlement of Kuwait has two aims: enrichment of Baghdad, and destruction of the Kuwaiti identity.
A senior US official says ``there's no question but that there's been an extraordinary amount of looting. A great deal of that which is mobile, or even transportable, is being taken out of the country.''
While initial looting was carried out by Iraqi troops for their own purposes, the theft now is so methodical it has to be directed by the Iraqi government, according to the US. Intelligence information indicates things as small as street lights have disappeared.
Entertainment City, a mini-Disneyland outside Kuwait City, has had its rides dismantled and shipped to Baghdad or Basra, says Raphael Kalis, Washington bureau chief of the Kuwait News Agency, who receives reports on the situation in his homeland.
The Kuwait News Agency's own headquarters have been emptied, its telex equipment and satellite uplink ripped up and taken away, Mr. Kalis says. The Kuwaiti government's fancy new international communications center has also been dismantled.
A number of sources have reported the abduction of Kuwait zoo animals, Kalis says. ``They're being killed and the meat used for food,'' he says.
One of the world's preeminent Islamic art collections, consisting of carpets, jewelry, ceramics, metalwork, and gems assembled by the ruling Kuwaiti Al-Sabah family, is feared looted from the Kuwaiti National Museum.
In addition, according to information the Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington compiled, Kuwaiti Airlines aircraft have been confiscated and flown to Baghdad. All banks have been relieved of cash, jewelry shops have been plundered, and equipment - including cranes - has been removed from the port of Shuwaikh.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, the Kuwaiti government-in-exile also charges Iraq with summary executions, massive, random arrests, and expulsion of all hospital inmates.
Destruction of Kuwait's identity is being carried out with such harsh measures as execution of Kuwaitis found with pictures of the Al-Sabah family, exiles say. Kuwait City's name has been changed to Kadhima, an ancient term for the region, and statues and portraits of Saddam Hussein have been erected. Iraqi families are being imported to occupy vacated housing. Computer records of Kuwaiti citizens, vital to any reconstruction of the country, have apparently been destroyed. Ironically, the German firm that set up the computerized list has kept a copy in Germany, says Rep. Les Aspin, (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
In recent days there have been hints from various diplomatic quarters that Saddam Hussein would pull out of most of Kuwait if allowed to keep several strategic Gulf islands and a larger piece of the Rumaila oil field. Secretary of State Baker has been quick to reject such a deal, saying that in light of Iraqi looting and summary execution of Kuwaiti citizens it would amount to ``self-defeating appeasement.''
``We cannot allow this violent way to become the wave of the future in the Middle East,'' Baker told Congress Wednesday.
No matter how hard he tries, it's unlikely Saddam will be able to turn even a small country such as Kuwait into a desert. When the Iraqis are evicted - and that day will come, insist US officials - Kuwait will live again. Much of the country's government escaped the Iraqi invasion, and much of the country's wealth is in foreign investments Saddam can't touch. Iraq can't loot Kuwait's oil, and the Kuwaiti people themselves will remain a resource.
``We're not at the point where Kuwait cannot be restored,'' says the senior US official.