On the Ground in Kuwait

THE Western hostages and diplomats are gone from Kuwait, but their accounts give the clearest picture yet of Iraqi occupation of that tiny land. It's an ugly picture: unlimited pillage and abuse or death for Kuwaitis who resist the occupiers. If Saddam Hussein released the hostages hoping to win sympathy, he may get just the opposite. With the deadlock over dates for talks between Washington and Baghdad dimming, the situation on the ground in Kuwait is one factor shaping attitudes about the crisis and its likely outcome.

Iraq is doing all it can to stifle accounts of its atrocities in Kuwait. Reporters haven't been allowed in, and international aid and human rights organizations have been denied access. But if accounts of killing and destruction are exaggerated, as Iraq claims, what does it have to fear from international observers?

Even without Iraq's cooperation, Amnesty International is preparing an 80-page report on conditions in Kuwait that is scheduled for release on Tuesday. Amnesty officials say the report will support - and greatly enlarge on - the accounts given by former hostages. The carefully corroborated information was gathered largely from Kuwaitis and others who have fled the country.

The Iraqi treatment of Kuwaiti citizens and their property tends to confirm the darkest things Americans have heard about Saddam and his methods. It's one factor steeling Washington's resolve to demand full compliance with UN resolutions calling for unconditional withdrawal and to avoid concessions or deals before compliance is obtained. Descriptions by freed hostages of how Kuwaitis risked their lives to get food to them and help them in other ways adds to that resolve.

Polls indicate that Americans have ambivalent feelings about going to war in the Gulf. They don't want to fight over oil. They are more willing to consider military action to halt a dangerous aggressor and restrict his means of terrorizing others. The situation inside Kuwait, as it becomes better understood, is likely to strengthen these inclinations.

Does this mean a war should be launched to free Kuwait? No. The more humane approach remains careful diplomacy and strict sanctions. War could well obliterate what's left of Kuwait, as well as cost many thousands of additional lives.

But horrible abuses of human rights and decency, such as those going on in Kuwait, must be taken into account in deciding how this crisis, or others, can justly be resolved.

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