KUWAIT CITY — Kuwaitis are grappling with a question to which only one man knows the answer: Will Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fire missiles tipped with chemical weapons into Kuwait?
Despite ongoing efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the current crisis in the Persian Gulf, US and allied military personnel and weapons continue to pour into the tense region by ship and cargo plane. As a result, Kuwaitis find themselves contemplating a nightmare every bit as terrifying as Iraq's 1990 invasion and occupation of the oil-rich emirate.
The issue is whether Saddam, after absorbing a portion of a US missile-and-bomb attack, might seek to strike back at the US-led coalition by lobbing poison gas warheads into downtown Kuwait City.
Some Kuwaiti analysts say such an attack is unlikely because Saddam and other Iraqi leaders have been attempting for months to convince the international community that they possess no chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. To launch a chemical attack now, these analysts say, would be inconsistent with Iraq's current, somewhat successful strategy of attempting to divide the former Gulf War coalition partners and isolate the United States.
"I think Kuwait is now one of the safest places on earth with all the armies that surround us and all the [defense] technology," says Ahmad Abbas, a Kuwaiti businessman. Some 10,000 US troops are now deployed in Kuwait, as are 144 defensive Patriot missiles and an array of aircraft.
Other Kuwaitis aren't so quick to rule out a poison missile attack. They say Saddam is impossible to predict.
"We are very much afraid," says Aysha Buhmad, who says her family has nevertheless chosen not to buy gas masks.
So far there has been no sign of panic here. Some Kuwaitis have left the country to wait out the crisis in luxury villas well outside Iraqi missile range. Others who are frightened but don't have the financial resources to fly to a safer area are closely following the diplomatic work of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to see if a peaceful solution can be found.
But most Kuwaitis appear ready to stick it out, no matter what happens next.
"If we want to go [to a safer region] we can," says Mrs. Buhmad. "But we won't go. Why? Because if we die we will die in Kuwait."
In interview after interview conducted in recent days, Kuwaitis repeatedly made one point: In their own way they each said how grateful they were to the US for standing up to Iraqi aggression both in the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and during the current crisis.
Fuad Al-Toura keeps a plaque on the wall beside his desk at work praising a man many in Kuwait consider a national hero, former US President George Bush. "Never will anybody in Kuwait - old man or child - never will they forget this man," he says of Mr. Bush, who served as commander-in-chief during Operation Desert Storm.
A very personal conflict
Nowhere in the Arab world is there stronger support for the use of military action in the current showdown with Iraq. Many Kuwaitis make no secret of their hope that Saddam is killed in a bombing or missile attack.
"We feel for the Iraqi people, but we hate the regime. We hate the regime! We hate the regime!" says Huda Abdul-Salam. "We really suffered from them. No one knows, not the other Gulf Arabs, no one can ever know how much we suffered," she says.
To the US, the current crisis in the Gulf is a direct result of Iraq's failure to comply with UN mandates for unfettered weapons inspections.
To Kuwaitis, the looming military confrontation is much more complicated and much more personal. In a country of roughly 1 million people, 600 Kuwaitis still unaccounted for sends an emotional ripple effect that touches virtually everyone.
"Either you have one [prisoner] taken from your family or you have a friend who has one taken from their family," says Mrs. Abdul-Salam.
Duaij Al-Anzi heads Kuwait's national committee for the return of prisoners of war held in Iraq. He says the POW issue is a source of powerful emotions among Kuwaitis.
Iraq has denied any knowledge of the missing Kuwaiti prisoners and refuses to allow the International Red Cross/Red Crescent to search Iraqi prisons for them.
Costs of wealth
Most Kuwaitis suspect Saddam is holding the prisoners for use as a bargaining chip with the Kuwaiti government at some point in the future. The cost of such a gambit is an emotional one, they say, a form of cruelty to children who know nothing of the fate of a parent, or parents unsure whether a child is dead or alive.
Kuwaitis know they are blessed to have a country that is literally floating on an underground sea of crude oil.
Other Arabs resent them for their wealth, but the money made their rebuilding easier and faster. It helped repave roads, renovate buildings, and replace the equipment, facilities, and valuables the Iraqis looted and trucked back to Baghdad.
But Kuwaitis also know that there are some things that money can't replace, like a childhood spent without a father.