Kuwaitis question US ambitions

Support for the US military presence is high, but many are suspicious of longterm Mideast goals.

Above the entry for Sept. 11, 2003, in Mohammed Al-Mulaifi's personalized calendar is a short eulogy. "Osama, you are an honor to your people," it begins. "Let us be honest with ourselves: Who does not like Osama? God knows that we love him! How can we prevent ourselves from loving a person who humiliated the greatest atheist state and the [Christian] cross protector and soiled it with dust?"

Not until halfway through the poem does it become clear that Mr. Mulaifi is paying homage not to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but to Osama bin Zeid, one of the companions of the Prophet Mohammed who led a Muslim army against the Eastern Roman Empire in 630 AD.

The calendar entry was written in wry humor. But the softspoken journalist and student of Islamic sharia law is in deadly earnest when he says that Muslims should rise up against the modern-day equivalent of Byzantium - the United States. "We have to start a jihad against the armies of the enemies of Islam," says the follower of the strict Salafi brand of Sunni Islam.

Mulaifi's view is shared by a band of Islamist radicals in Kuwait incensed at the close ties between their rulers and the US, and by the presence of more than 12,000 American troops in this tiny Gulf nation. About a quarter of the country has been sealed off to the public and turned into a massive live-fire training ground for US forces. Though this is a conservative Muslim country, the trappings of Western culture are hard to miss: Marble and glass malls are filled with US fast-food restaurants and European boutiques, and many young Kuwaitis wear the same clothes as their Western contemporaries.

Most Kuwaitis - including the country's mainstream Islamists, though with some reluctance - openly support the American troop presence, whose military might is seen as a guarantor against any future belligerence from neighboring Iraq. "We dine with death if the Americans leave us," says Abdullah Bishara, who heads the Diplomatic Center for Strategic Studies.

But there is genuine anger among Kuwaitis at Washington's perceived failure to resolve the festering conflict between Israel and Palestinians. Many also harbor deep suspicions about Washington's long-term ambitions for the region.

Since October, that resentment has fueled a spate of shootings targeting American troops. In one, a US Marine was shot dead and another wounded on Failaka Island, off the Kuwaiti coast, by two Al Qaeda sympathizers who were killed in the attack. Last month, two American soldiers were shot and wounded by a Kuwaiti policeman. Kuwaiti officials played down the incident, saying the policeman was "insane."

"There are strong feelings about US policy in the region. That's the difference between now and 1990," when US forces first deployed in Kuwait. "It was less complicated back then, more of a black and white issue," a Western diplomat says. "But the fear and loathing of Saddam Hussein makes it almost unthinkable for most conservative Muslims to publicly state their opposition to the presence of US troops here."

Islamist radicals have also been silenced by a nervous Kuwaiti government eager to maintain warm relations with the US - often at the expense of legal procedure, lawyers say. On Monday, a court threw out the testimonies of four suspected Al Qaeda militants because defense lawyers claimed the confessions had been extracted under torture.

The arrests and detentions simply fuel further hostility toward the US and Western-friendly Arab regimes, says Hakim Al-Mutayri, secretary-general of the Salafist Movement in Kuwait. "Before Sept. 11 and before the Palestinian intifada, the people of the Gulf looked at America as an ally. Nothing like [these recent attacks] happened here before Sept. 11, although the Americans had been in Kuwait for more than 10 years."

Though fear of arrest has silenced most members of the extremist Islamic community, and though he has been detained several times by Kuwait's state security, Mulaifi, the Islamic student, is willing to speak freely. Yes, Saddam Hussein is reviled by Islamists, he says, but a US-led invasion of Iraq would nonetheless spark widespread unrest in the Gulf and the Arab world. "Once the US strikes Iraq, [the Islamists] will emerge like devils," he says. "There are many true believers in Kuwait and the Gulf who will attack the Americans."

Yes, Dr. Mutayri agrees, there is "widespread public sympathy in the Arab and Islamic world for the thoughts of Al Qaeda ... because of the belief that the Americans want to suck the Arab world dry." That's why, he adds, Samuel Huntington's 1996 book, "The Clash of Civilizations," was an accurate forecast of unfolding events. But where Professor Huntington writes that the impetus for a civilizational conflict would come from Islam, Mutayri blames the West.

"America wants to impose its imperialism and culture on the Arab world without paying attention to other cultures," he says. "There is no clash between Islamic culture and Chinese and other East Asian cultures - and our ties are closer with Europe than with China, because our peoples believe in monotheistic religions. We believe in Christ as a messenger of God and there are ethics and values that we share. But these hostilities have been created by Western goals and ambitions for the Arab world." A clash between Islam and the West is not inevitable, he insists.

Though bin Laden subscribes to a form of Salafism - as did Afghanistan's Taliban regime - Mutayri says the sect rejects violence. But he says jihad is justified under sharia. "For example, what the Palestinians are doing in the intifada is legitimate jihad," he says.

Does he believe bin Laden's jihad against the West is justified under sharia? Mutayri, arrested earlier this year for his outspoken views, pauses, then smiles. "No comment," he says.

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