US troops descend on Kuwait

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST of 6,000 additional American troops being sent to Kuwait, "Dogfaces" of the Third Infantry Division, descended in desert fatigues from a chartered Boeing 747 yesterday. The message from their commander was straightforward: "We're here to defend Kuwait."

Their ability to perform that role was emphasised by the sight of hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles at Camp Doha, the US base in Kuwait normally occupied by only 1,500 troops.

But if Lieutenant-General Tommy Franks, commander of the Third US Army, or his soldiers ever get the chance to speak to any Kuwaitis, they will find that the latest crisis in the Gulf has exposed all the ambiguities this country feels about its dependence on the West and its position in the Arab world.

Kuwait is virtually alone in allowing its soil to be used for a possible attack on Iraq, and many fear that fellow Arabs will blame them for anything which worsens the suffering of Saddam Hussein's subjects. Uneasiness about possible retaliation, which has brought calls for preparedness and a rush by some to buy gasmasks, is matched by a sense of isolation.

Some of the most Westernised Kuwaitis, such as Ahmad Bishara, an engineer who leads the liberal National Democratic Movement, have few doubts. "Many of us were disappointed by the reaction of our neighbours in 1990 and 1991, when we suffered seven months of Iraqi occupation," he said. "Countries like Syria and Egypt would never have come to our aid without the Americans. We emerged wishing that we weren't in this part of the world.

"As a Kuwaiti I don't feel any guilt or shame when we ask for assistance. It is pure and simple self-defence against an unpredictable enemy with a long history of deceit and aggression. None of us wants a military solution, but we are tired of the threat from Saddam Hussein, and we want to get it over with. That does not make us warmongers."

Even Naser al-Sane, a Shia Muslim member of the National Assembly who is one of Mr Bishara's bitterest conservative opponents, did not disagree with him. "We are 100 per cent for a peaceful solution," he said. "But if Iraq doesn't comply it will be responsible for the consequences. Kuwaitis believe they are hosting troops as part of an international coalition applying United Nations resolutions."

When Kuwaitis are talking among themselves rather than for international consumption, however, much less certainty is apparent. At a political meeting in the home of Sami al-Monayyes, the leading liberal in the National Assembly, the undesirability of the Western presence in the region was taken for granted. "Saddam gives others a reason to interfere," the MP complained. "Why are all these US weapons here? Because we Arabs created this problem - it wasn't imposed from outside."

Others disagreed. "The Americans are playing a big game against all Arabs," said one member of his audience. "They are using Saddam as a means of blackmailing the Gulf countries. The danger comes from them as well as him. They are not just here to protect Kuwait. They have a step-by-step approach - first it was protecting Saudi Arabia, then it was liberating Kuwait, now they are seeking to intervene militarily in Iraq."

Mr al-Monayyes, seeking to persuade his listeners that lack of respect for human rights was at the root of instability in the Arab world, replied that "our regimes will look like puppets of the West" while they lacked legitimacy. "Our decisions are very dependent on theirs - we don't feel independent."

Some speakers pointed out that the US was much less willing to hold Israel to UN resolutions on the occupied territories, but the Palestinian cause is the subject of further ambiguity in Kuwait.

Once there were more Palestinians here than Kuwaiti citizens, but most were expelled after being accused of sympathising with the Iraqis during the occupation. Several alleged collaborators were tortured and killed. "The Zionists' main preoccupation is the Palestinians, as the Iraqis are ours," the MP said uncomfortably, trying to get back to his theme.