Even Kuwait's Islamists welcome US

An additional 4,000 US Marines are due in Kuwait next week as part of joint military exercises.

The United States may be unpopular throughout the Arab world, but in Kuwait, with the trauma of Iraq's 1990 invasion still fresh in people's minds, even Islamists are not opposed to an American presence here.

Kuwaitis openly back the removal of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. And while the presence of US troops in neighboring Saudi Arabia has helped spawn the extremism of Osama bin Laden, Islamists – advocates of Islamic political rule – have kept Kuwait's military relationship with the US off their political agenda.

"Islamists understand the requirement of Kuwait's security and the needs of the United States," says Shafeeq Ghabra, head of the Center of Strategic and Future Studies at Kuwait University. "They support ousting Saddam Hussein, yet at the same time they are critical of the American policy in Palestine and Afghanistan."

Islamists fill about one-third of Kuwait's 50-seat Parliament, reflecting a gradual trend toward Islamic values, particularly among young Kuwaitis. The well-organized Islamists have proved an effective opposition force, calling for less spending on defense and opposing cuts in Kuwait's welfare programs.

Mohammed Mulaifi, a student of sharia, or Islamic law and a member of the extremist Salafist sect, says he sympathizes with Mr. bin Laden's efforts to oust the US from the Gulf. But he also admits that Kuwait is a different case.

"Kuwait is an American base and I oppose this," Mr. Mulaifi says. "But most Kuwaitis support the US military presence here."

In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, several Gulf countries, including Kuwait, made a strategic long-term commitment to develop close military ties with Washington as a form of insurance against regional instability. The US benefits commercially through lucrative arms contracts with Arab states and ensuring the continued flow of oil and gas from the Gulf.

Still, the government of Kuwait, like that of its Gulf neighbors, has remained circumspect on whether it would permit US troops to mount a unilateral operation to depose Saddam, conditioning its support for the military option on a forceful United Nations Security Council resolution.

"As a member of the United Nations, Kuwait is obliged to implement any security Council resolution [against Iraq]," Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Kuwait's foreign minister, said last week. "But we oppose any unilateral act."

Kuwait would play a key role in any military strike against Iraq. Some 8,000 to 10,000 US troops are permanently stationed in the country, the bulk at Camp Doha on the coast, 10 miles north of Kuwait City. An additional 4,000 US Marines and a consignment of armored vehicles are due in Kuwait next week to take part in joint military exercises with the Kuwaiti Army.

For many Kuwaitis, the presence of American troops has helped dispel fears that Saddam might attack again.

"I definitely feel safer with the Americans here," says Maryam al-Hilel, a lawyer. "The Iraqis are cowards. Saddam Hussein would never attack us while the Americans are here."

Not everyone is so confident, however. Some Kuwaitis are concerned that a war against Iraq could have serious ramifications for regional stability.

"I am very worried about the prospect of war," says Mona al-Saleh, a school secretary and mother of four. "I wanted to buy a house but have changed my plans. The future is dark and I don't know what to do."

Mr. Ghabra says that there are fears of Saddam retaliating to an invasion by firing rockets tipped with chemical or biological warheads toward Kuwait.

"People are not sure what to expect with the clouds of war gathering on the horizon," says Ghabra. "They want Saddam to go but are not sure they can stop a disaster from happening."

Some enterprising businessmen are taking advantage of these fears by importing gas masks and protective tents to sell to nervous Kuwaitis.

"We have been receiving around 90 calls a day asking about the tents," says Ajay Kumar, a technical engineer with the Boudai Trading Company. "We didn't expect this response."

Costing $12,000 each, the pressurized tents offer up to six people 500 hours of filtered air, and protection from nuclear fallout and 220 varieties of chemical and biological agents.

Mr. Kumar says that his stock of 30 tents was sold in just two days. "We have placed an order for another 500," he said. "As long as there is conflict in the Middle East, these tents will be needed."

Kuwait's civil defense authority has built several underground bunkers and stockpiled some 500,000 gas masks. Czech and German troops specializing in nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare are training civil defense teams to cope with the aftermath of an NBC attack.

"We have to be careful because Saddam's regime has used chemical weapons on its own people," says Colonel Mustafa Shabaan, the director-general of Kuwait's Civil Defense Authority. "We hope the regime will be finished off before we need to use our masks."

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