After 13 years, a new hope for Kuwaiti POWs in Iraq

Hussein's ouster brings hope that Kuwaitis captured in 1990 might be found, but families remain anxious.

Jamal al-Attar was 26 years old when the Iraqi Mukhabarat snatched him off the street for questioning. He was accused of being a resistance fighter opposed to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Then he was loaded onto a truck with scores of other Kuwaitis. That was the last anyone here saw of him.

Today, Mr. Attar would be 38 years old and would have spent one-third of his life in an Iraqi prison. "I must say that I hope that he is still alive. I hope that all of them are still alive," says Abdul Hamid al-Attar, Jamal's father. "But I have to be frank with myself. I am not that much optimistic."

As the United States continues to celebrate the quick and safe return of eight American prisoners of war from Iraq, the families of some 600 Kuwaiti POWs taken by Iraqi troops in 1990 are still awaiting even a tidbit of information about the condition of their loved ones.

Kuwait is offering $1 million to anyone with information that leads to the discovery of its POWs. And a team of Kuwaiti investigators is working closely with US and British forces in Iraq to locate them.

The reward money has generated hundreds of potential leads, but none so far has proved accurate or useful.

Although it is unclear whether any of the missing Kuwaitis are still alive, most of the family members and a significant number of other Kuwaitis believe they are.

"Out of the 605, I would say there must be some there," says Sarah al-Deyyain, whose friend has a family member among the missing.

"They may be anywhere in Iraq; there are so many prisons and tunnels," adds Fawaz Bourisly, who works for Kuwait's Ministry of Information.

ONE major concern of family members is that the quick demise of Saddam Hussein's regime may have put their loved ones in even greater danger. If the Kuwaiti POWs were being held in secret, underground prisons, and the guards ran away to escape US troops, the prisoners may have been left in cells without food and water.

As if that isn't upsetting enough, family members must also face inaccurate and speculative press reports. Recently, a Gulf TV station broadcast news that 18 Kuwaitis were being held in a Baghdad basement. The news swept across Kuwait like a violent sandstorm. Family members rushed to Kuwait's National Committee for the Missing and POWs, and hundreds of others jammed the phone lines - only to learn that the revelations were false.

Such reports are unlikely to stop any time soon. On Monday, an Arabic newspaper in Kuwait published a photograph of a man discovered in an Iraqi psychiatric hospital. He is said to be a Kuwaiti soldier, one of the 605 prisoners. But some of his relatives aren't sure.

"It is difficult to know if it is the same person, because he looks very old," says Mr. Attar. "But his mother says, 'Yes, he is my son.' " She has said there is a scar on the man's eyebrow and that her son had an identical scar.

Many of the Kuwaiti family members were eagerly expecting that as soon as Hussein's regime collapsed, the Kuwaiti POWs would be on their way home. That didn't happen.

Attar says the Kuwait POW issue may be similar to the US search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It is the Iraqis who know where Iraq's secrets are hidden and who are in the best position to help disclose those secrets.

"Without the help of the Iraqis, we cannot find our loved ones," Attar says. "We need the help of those officers who used to guard the prisoners. But now most of them are at large." Failing that, he says, there are three Iraqis who would certainly be able to solve the Kuwait POW mystery: Hussein and his sons, Uday and Qusay. "Those three can tell us," he says.

Most difficult, say family members, is not knowing whether their loved ones are alive. The situation has worsened with extensive television coverage of Iraqi jails and reports by former Iraqi political prisoners detailing how they were routinely beaten and tortured. If Hussein did this to his own people, the Kuwaitis received worse, family members say.

"We wish that all of them are alive and all of them will be returned soon to Kuwait - but if not, [their families] should know the truth," says Ali Murad of the National Committee for the Missing and POWs.

Attar agrees: "Five or six years ago, we used to insist they are alive and that the Iraqis must bring them back to Kuwait alive. Now we have changed. We say we must know if they are dead or alive - but we can't accept that they are missing."

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