Kuwaitis Prepare for US Exit

But transition may be bumpy for a country so long dependent on foreign labor and skills

AT Camp Freedom, the headquarters of the United States military in Kuwait City, they call it the five o'clock follies. They are the daily briefings and progress reports of the work of the US Combined Civil Affairs Division whose job it was to put Kuwait into a livable condition immediately after liberation. The speakers are brisk and to the point as each colonel gives a summary of the work of his particular section: how many loaves of bread have been delivered; the number of water tanks which came in today from Saudi Arabia; the return of civilian stevedores to the port; how many car tires are needed in the local market - all the minutia of running a capital city and supplying it.

The staggering detail of the briefings reveals just how intimately the US military has become involved in running Kuwait City since liberation seven weeks ago - and just how reliant the Kuwaitis have become on the Americans to run it for them.

This tight team of colonels, many of them professionals in their civilian lives, have been managing the job of ensuring that there is enough electricity in the grid, water in the taps, and food in the cooperatives. When Kuwait was liberated, public services and food supplies were nonexistent.

Today, 85 percent of the electricity has been restored, water demand will be met fully in three week's time, and Kuwaitis - though not non-Kuwaitis - are getting enough food. Much of this success is due, many believe, to the efforts of the Americans, and a handful of unrecognized Kuwaiti engineers and bureaucrats.

On April 15, the US Civil Affairs Task Force began leaving, and many are asking whether the Kuwaitis will stumble in the handover, if not fall flat on their faces.

Civil affairs officers in private express concern that the Kuwaitis were beginning to regard US soldiers as another form of foreign laborers.

"We pulled out our Army mechanics from a ministry and the Kuwaitis asked us if they [the mechanics] could change the oil in their cars before we left. You ask them to do something, and they say it is not their job," says a sergeant in the Civil Affairs Division.

At present, Kuwait City is a ghost town, its foreign labor force down to a fraction of its former size, once 60 percent of the 2 million population.

Kuwaitis, too, have largely abandoned their country. More than a quarter of those who remained cooped up for the seven months of the Iraqi occupation have now fled on holidays to see friends and relatives. The end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan has provoked another major exodus to more watered capitals.

The Americans say they want to see the government announce that everyone should go back to work. But without a foreign labor force to do the work, few expect to see any surge in activity.

The acting Kuwaiti government (there is no full government at present) says it wants to use this opportunity to reassess its manpower requirements and instill a work ethic in the Kuwaiti population.

They don't want to see maids return en masse, or foreign technicians return to do the work. They want Kuwaitis to do the job, so that once again they can become a majority in their country. Government officials say they are aiming for a population of 1.2 million people, two thirds of whom will be Kuwaiti.

The Kuwaitis have also made it clear they do not want to see the Palestinian community return to their jobs. Many of the 70,000 non-Kuwaitis in the civil service were Palestinians.

Apart from key technicians working on essential services such as electricity, water, and hospitals, Palestinians have been told not to return to work. The private sector too was heavily reliant on them for their skills. Now, Kuwaitis say they want fewer Palestinians to live in Kuwait, and tens of thousands of Palestinians are expected to loose their jobs.

Kuwaiti officials say the air of hostility toward the Palestinian community would make their return to work impractical.

The US military just wants to hand over to someone, and says the government's objectives are incompatible.

"They say they want the process of reconstruction to begin quickly, but they also say that they don't want foreign workers to return. The two aims are incompatible," says a local US official.

Gen. Howard Mooney, head of the Civil Affairs Task Force comments: "I don't want to say we are getting out of town fast. The game plan was to help them get started.

"We think they're well on their way," he says diplomatically.

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