Kuwait hopes for answers on its Gulf War POWs

Iraq will hold talks next month in Jordan to address the whereabouts of 605 Kuwaitis still missing.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Ashwaq Abdel-Rida has never known her father. She was born eight months after he was captured by Iraqi soldiers while shopping for his pregnant wife in August 1990. Musa Abdel-Rida, a sergeant in the Kuwaiti police, hasn't been seen since.

Twelve years after Iraq's occupation of its southern neighbor, 605 Kuwaitis are still missing. Their fate remains a highly emotional issue in this country of only 860,000, and has helped sustain a deep animosity for Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Iraq says all Kuwaiti prisoners were released and denies holding any more. But last week, Iraq announced it would hold talks with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia next month in the Jordanian capital, Amman, to determine the whereabouts of the missing.

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A few days earlier, Baghdad also lifted a ban on a United Nations envoy charged with resolving disputes between Iraq and Kuwait.

In a letter to the UN, Iraq invited Yuli Vorontsov to Baghdad for the first time since UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed him in February 2000 to persuade Iraq to return stolen property, including Kuwait's national archives, and to account for the missing.

With the prospect of a US-led war against Iraq looming large, Baghdad's offer is seen as the latest attempt to curry favor with Kuwait. Two weeks ago, Mr Hussein made an unprecedented, albeit grudging, apology for invading Kuwait in 1990. In October, Iraq returned to Kuwait part of the state archives.

But Kuwaitis remain unimpressed. The returned archives contained no valuable historical documents, only "unimportant" and replaceable paperwork, according to Kuwaiti Information Minister Sheikh Ahmad Fahd Al-Ahmad. And Hussein's speech, although billed as an apology, praised recent attacks against American soldiers deployed in Kuwait and urged Kuwaitis to rise up against the "foreign occupiers."

"In the past, the Iraqi government has tried to sell our people to destruction and is apparently attempting to do that still," said Ahmad al-Saadoun, a former parliamentary speaker. He added, "Most important, where are our prisoners of war?"

It is a question that Ashwaq; her mother, Ghanima; and the other families of the missing have been asking for more than a decade. "I miss my father. It has been very difficult," Ashwaq says.

The Kuwaiti government established the National Committee for the Missing and POW Affairs in 1993. The committee has an annual budget of $6.6 million to trace the whereabouts of the detainees and provide welfare for their families. Each family receives between $1,160 and $1,655 per month.

The committee is housed in a sprawling complex here. The walls are filled with paintings depicting detainees languishing in Iraqi prisons. Just below the ceiling are photographs of the 605 missing.

"That's my son," says Abdul Hameed Al-Attar, pointing at a photo of a young man sporting glasses and a thin mustache.

Jammal al-Attar, a member of the Kuwaiti resistance, was caught along with other members of his group a month after the Iraqi invasion. In 1997, Iraq released details on 126 missing Kuwaitis. The report said the Iraqi authorities had lost trace of the detainees after the Gulf War and concluded that they were either killed during the March 1991 Shiite Muslim uprising or had chosen to settle in Iraq of their own free will.

Mr. Attar, whose son was among the 126, says he no longer believes Jammal is still alive.

"Twelve years have passed and we have had no information. Saddam is not giving us any hope," he says.

Most relatives of the missing have long ago concluded that their loved ones are dead. But the lack of confirmation prevents the relatives from moving on with their lives. Mrs. Abdel-Rida, for example, is unable to remarry because Kuwaiti law demands evidence that her husband is dead. She survives on her salary as a nurse and her monthly benefit from the POW committee.

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