The Kuwait 'street'

In my hasty rush out of Boston, I forgot a few things: my toothbrush, electric adaptors, extra notebook.

My military hosts, however, seem to have forgotten to pack the gas masks and chem-bio suits that we reporters need before we join our units. As the days pass without any firm word on when the gear will arrive, I have been talking with residents of Kuwait City about how they are preparing for possible war.

Khadija Sekouri, a guest worker in Kuwait City, worries that she can't afford a gas mask. Good masks sell for upward of 50 Kuwaiti dinar (KD), or $150 US.

"For a family of five people, it's a problem. This is too much money," says Sekouri, a shopping mall clerk. With that much money, she could fly back to her native Morocco to wait out the war. A friend, Samina Kahar from the Philippines, says she's in the same boat. She makes 80 KD a month working at a children's clothing store.

With a US war on Iraq looming, the Kuwaiti government is recommending that citizens buy a gas mask and make a "safe room" within their homes. In the past few weeks, armed troops have been positioned along major roads in the city and the government has begun text messaging security updates to Kuwaiti cell phones.

Few people I talked to, however, have bought masks or sealed off rooms. But the possibility of war is the topic of conversation from barbershops to restaurants to shopping malls. Many seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach, telling me they will buy gas masks when the war gets closer. When a child's balloon pops unexpectedly in a downtown shopping mall, I am the only shopper rattled by the sudden sound.

Government forethought appears to have helped avoid panic. Newspapers announced the checkpoints days before Interior Ministry troops set up around the city. Subsequent text messages have relayed to the public that "Checkpoints are placed to ensure the public safety."

But retail businesses are hurting, an evident concern for many of the expatriates who come to Kuwait from around the Muslim world seeking service jobs. Almost two thirds of the population are not classified as Kuwaitis, and a clear class divide exists. As one Indian shopkeeper put it, disparagingly, Kuwaitis "make signatures" and drink tea all day.

Some of that bitterness percolates around the public security recommendations. Poorer workers do not have an extra room to seal off - in fact, some local fishermen said they live with three or four other people in 12-foot by 9-foot dorm rooms. Several people I spoke with believe a rumor that only Kuwaitis are being given masks by the government. In fact, the government has only issued masks to military personnel. And some civilian Kuwaitis agree that the masks should be free for all.

"They must give it to us, [we] shouldn't [have to] buy it," says Kuwaiti Alaa Malallh, a young woman wearing a white headscarf. But her real anger is focused on the Iraqi government. If Saddam Hussein is overthrown, she says, "I will dance in the street."

There's no love lost for Mr. Hussein on the streets of Kuwait City. Many hasten to mention that they believe Iraq's leader menaces not just Kuwait but the whole Arab world, including workers' native countries.

Memories of Iraq's 1990 invasion run deep here. Bookstores still display coffeetable books about the event. Everyone has a story to tell. Ghanin Al-Muklaf, a naval administrator, offers me tea as he recalls an eight-month ordeal as a POW, shifted from one Iraqi city to the next by his captors. He was given one meal a day and no bathroom breaks after 7 p.m. He hasn't found much comfort in the peace, however. "From 1990 [on], we've been too afraid," says Al-Muklaf. "Tell America, please, to finish it."

Iraq's threats over the past decade have damaged the economy and worn down Kuwaitis' patience. This latest buildup of tension has been no different.

Diya Mustafa, a Jordanian salesman, stands by a row of flat-screen TVs in the Sony shop where he works. The small nondescript shop sits on a main street in Kuwait, with signs in the window in both English and Arabic.

He is discouraged that no customers have come into the shop over the past hour. Those that do sometimes tell him that they are waiting until after the war to buy a new TV. Mustafa, like a few others, opposes war on principle. And while he thinks Hussein is "crazy," he doesn't believe that he has any more weapons of mass destruction, because UN inspectors haven't turned up any yet. He also thinks US soldiers should go home if there is no threat. "Not all - some should stay," he hastens to add.

No one seems troubled by the presence of so many US troops. In fact, one woman whose husband is a Kuwaiti fighter pilot was apologetic.

"We feel sorry that all these soldiers have to come to defend us. They all have family - sisters, mothers, children."

Many workers also have worried family in other parts of the world. War jitters have prompted some families to urge their relatives to return home.

A restaurant manager, a native of Lebanon, told his workers they were free to leave for the duration of any conflict. "I'm not scared for me, I'm scared for my staff." He says he will buy everyone a gas mask if things heat up. "I have 45 families to take care of."

Editor's note: reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the expected invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait ( ).

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