THE uniformed guard begins shouting through the smoggy haze as the car gingerly approaches the security checkpoint at one of Kuwait City's main intersections. "Stop! Get out now!" he shouts in Arabic, pointing his Kalashnikov rifle at the car as its occupants wave and turn on the interior light to identify themselves as foreign reporters.
"Ah, sahafiya Amerikki? [American journalists?] Welcome!" the guard says upon inspecting identity cards offered through the driver's window. His dark scowl under the Arab kaffiya headdress has turned to a smile.
Such incidents are a nightly occurrence in Kuwait City as jittery Kuwaiti soldiers and a regular police inspect vehicles at checkpoints. Though the 10 p.m.-4 a.m. curfew has been relaxed for the holy month of Ramadan, martial law is still enforced.
A Westerner's nationality serves as good protection - provided his identity can be quickly demonstrated. But many others, particularly non-Kuwaiti locals, are not so fortunate.
Since allied troops drove the Iraqi Army from Kuwait more than a month ago, there have been constant reports of abuse directed at various groups, in particular Kuwait's large Palestinian population. The New York-based human rights organization Middle East Watch has confirmed that between 30 and 40 people have been killed, and at least 2,000 detained.
Just after the war ended, many checkpoints were manned by members of the so-called "Kuwaiti resistance" - those who fought clandestinely against the Iraqis during the occupation. In the flush of liberation, there were suddenly many more civilians with rifles calling themselves resistance fighters, and still more who found abandoned weapons.
The government is trying to confiscate weapons. But doing so is a tall order, not only because of the many rifles in circulation, but because the government has floundered since its Cabinet resigned over its perceived inability to handle reconstruction.
"If these incidents have occurred, we should be ashamed," says Sulayman al-Mutawa, Kuwait's acting Planning Minister referring to those killed since Kuwait was liberated. "People can say we are doing to the Palestinians just what the Iraqis did to us."
Running in tandem with a changing human rights situation is the fundamental change occurring in the security apparatus.
"It will be only Kuwaitis in the police and Army from now on, because if you have others you don't know which are good and which are bad," says Saleh al-Salal, chief of police communications. "At least we know for sure that Kuwaitis are loyal."
THAT is small consolation for scores of former police and Army officers stuck in a refugee camp on Kuwait's border with Iraq. Squatting cross-legged in a Red Cross tent in the windswept camp south of the border, several men in bedraggled clothing show identity cards bearing photographs of them in uniform.
"I work with Interior Ministry security police for many years to defend my country," says Abu Nasr, the only man able to speak in broken English. "The Iraqis arrest me, take me as prisoner.... After I walk the long way here, young Kuwaiti soldier says I cannot come in. Why? What I do to him? I am born in Kuwait, I have family in Kuwait, but they say I am not Kuwaiti...." he went on, his voice trailing off.
Thousands of other refugees being released by Iraq are also subject to screening in northern Saudi Arabia before being flown home on chartered Kuwait Airways airliners. The government says it is unsure what will happen to those it considers undesirables. But there seems little doubt that non-Kuwaitis will have no place in the security forces.
Other Kuwaitis say they disagree with the government's longstanding nationality rules and preoccupation with security. A reevaluation of citizenship requirements must be part of democratic reforms in the "new" Kuwait, they say.
"These are all things that must change, but I see no indication yet that this government will even be willing to consider such things," says Abdulaziz Sultan, chairman of the Gulf Bank and a leading opposition figure. He accuses the government of incompetence, and questions the need for the 90-day martial law declared even before the government, Army or police had returned from exile.