With thousands of US troops pouring into Kuwait, this oil-rich state has become the staging ground for any invasion of Iraq. But its military role has made it a ripe target for Baghdad - and for Islamic extremists angered by the American military presence.
Kuwaiti authorities face a triple security threat: attacks against US troops by Islamic militants, Iraqi-sanctioned acts of sabotage, and the possibility of a chemical weapons attack unleashed in a final act of revenge by Saddam Hussein.
A grim reminder of the dangers came on Tuesday when two US civilian contractors were attacked by a gunman armed with an AK-47 rifle. Michael Rene Pouliot was killed and David Carraway was wounded in the attack near Camp Doha, a large US military base.
Kuwaiti officials are playing down the attack. Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Kuwait's foreign minister, said the assault "was abnormal for Kuwaiti society."
"Everyone deplores this criminal act against our American guests," he said, adding that it would not affect relations between Kuwait and the United States.
But the shooting, the first deadly assault against Americans in Kuwait since October, comes just a week after a Kuwaiti citizen was arrested for spying for Iraq and plotting sabotage and assassination. And with thousands of US troops arriving here, Kuwaiti authorities are anxious to prevent further breaches of internal security.
US Middle East policy arouses strong criticism in the Arab world, especially Washington's support for Israel. But Kuwaitis remain grateful to the US for its role in liberating the country from Iraq in 1991. Hatred and fear of Mr. Hussein is a unifying factor in Kuwait, where even moderate Islamists prefer to turn a blind eye to the presence of US troops.But that does not stop Kuwaitis from voicing their suspicions of Washington's ultimate agenda for the Middle East. And a small band of Islamic extremists are prepared to do more than voice criticism.
On Oct. 8, a US Marine was killed and another wounded by two Al Qaeda-linked gunmen on Failaka Island off the coast of Kuwait. Both assailants were shot dead. On Nov. 21, a Kuwaiti policeman shot and wounded two soldiers in civilian clothes after stopping their car on a highway near Kuwait City. The Kuwaiti authorities downplayed the incident, saying the policeman was "insane."
Mohammed Mulaifi, a member of the hard-line Salafist movement who is familiar with Al Qaeda thinking, says attacks against US troops will continue.
"Osama bin Laden knows that the Americans are not here just to depose Saddam Hussein. They are here to put their hands on the oil and on Islamic resources and to dominate all Islamic countries," he says. "Many Islamists in Kuwait and the Gulf will attack the Americans when they hit Iraq."
There are some 17,000 US troops in Kuwait and the number is steadily building. An estimated 200,000 US troops will be in the Gulf by mid-February, the majority of them in Kuwait. The troops are rarely seen in public - the bulk of them are based in the northwest quarter of the country, which has been sealed off by the Kuwaiti authorities and turned into a vast live-fire training ground.
At greater risk, however, are civilian contractors working with the US military, such as the victims in Tuesday's shooting. US officials and local police are working on the assumption that the killer had staked out the road in the knowledge that the route is frequently used by Americans working at Camp Doha.
About 6,000 Americans live and work in Kuwait. In a letter printed by the Arab Times, an unnamed American asked: "What is there to gain by killing innocents? Do you think that the US will stop sending soldiers? Do you think that any policy will change because of these merciless acts? They will not."
Kuwaiti police were quick to detain several people for questioning about the attack, but there is little they can do to halt such sporadic incidents.
Kuwaitis are also concerned about Iraq fomenting internal unrest prior to or during a US-led invasion of Iraq.
The announcement last week that a Kuwaiti citizen, a sergeant in the National Guard, had been arrested for spying for Iraq caused widespread shock here, where memories of Iraq's brutal seven-month occupation are still fresh.
Mohammed Hamad Fahad al-Juwayd is reported to have confessed to passing military information to Iraq, planning bombing attacks against a power station and gas stations, and plotting to assassinate key Kuwaiti officials in exchange for thousands of dollars.
"Kuwait passed through hard circumstances during the Iraqi invasion, and the occupiers did not find persons in Kuwaiti society to hire as agents," said Kuwaiti Information and Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahd al-Sabah. "This is an individual case, although it has deeply distressed me," he added.
Shafeeq Ghabra, a professor of politics at Kuwait University, says domestic attacks being carried out by Kuwaitis is a "very minor factor," due to the national hatred for Hussein.
Kuwaitis are also bracing for the prospect that Hussein may unleash weapons of mass destruction against Kuwait in a final act of revenge. At noon yesterday, Kuwait City rang with the chilling wail of an air-raid siren, the latest precautionary exercise undertaken by the Kuwaiti Civil Defense.
Gas masks and protective tents are on sale in shops, and batteries of Patriot antimissile missiles have been deployed around Kuwait City and key military bases. Every few days, evacuation drills are carried out at government facilities. On Sunday, the Ministry of Food and Agricultural Sciences was subjected to a mock attack with chemical weapons. Smoke canisters were ignited and sound bombs detonated around the building in downtown Kuwait City. An alarm bell rang and employees filed out of a side door, stepping past a "corpse" complete with gruesome makeup on his face.
The exercise proceeded smoothly, but Ali al-Shemlan, the director-general of the ministry, admits that further drills are needed.
"We have been though a surprise before [when Iraq invaded in 1990], and Kuwaitis do not want to be surprised again," he says. "We will be prepared."