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Raid on Iraq: Kuwaitis watch and wait in fear

KUWAIT CITY - 'Saddam is mad, but you know why he's done this?' The Kuwaiti voice was laughing, cynical, a trifle contemptuous. 'He doesn't care about Bush. He wants the Arabs to care. The UN fails in Bosnia. It even lets a Muslim leader there get assassinated. More important, the UN fails to get Israel to take back the Palestinian deportees in Lebanon. But the UN lets America use the big stick on Iraq. Saddam wants the Arabs to think about that difference. He thinks that way they will turn to him.'

The man was an old friend, one of hundreds of Kuwaitis seized as a hostage by Iraq in the last days of its occupation of Kuwait in February 1991, treated cruelly by them before his release in the aftermath of what we were then told was America's 'victory' over Saddam Hussein. He has no reason to admire his former tormentors.

His voice remained cold. 'Look, the Algerians still love Saddam. The Palestinians still admire him. The Egyptians are silent now. There is no Arab coalition like there was in the Gulf war. When you people refer to 'the Gulf war allies' now, you mean just America, France and Britain. Saddam wants to separate the Arabs from the West.'

Yes, we had, most of us, thought the Gulf war was over two years ago, even before the victory parades. Now here we were back in Kuwait City again, the sky alive with the roar of jet fighters. And by early evening, there were the old, unnerving signs of impending conflict. Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia was to address his people on the Iraqi crisis just after dusk. A few hundred American troops, it quietly transpired, were expected in Kuwait today for what was, naturally, billed as a 'routine exercise'. Then the Kuwait City telephone lines began to collapse, as if someone was practising an emergency disconnection.

For days, Kuwaitis have feared - however improbably - a repeat of the Iraqi invasion of 2 August 1990. They have avoided the great highway to Basra. They have drawn savings out of the banks in their millions. Yesterday I watched a businessman in a tiny suburban bank coolly draw dollars 100,000 ( pounds 65,000) out of his account. At least he took it out in Kuwaiti dinars. But was it possible to shrug off the imminence of conflict when the American news agency reporters were in the Gulf, back on the US fleet - their dispatches censored, of course - to report on all that high morale and desire to 'finish the job' that we used to hear two years ago to this very day? Last night, suddenly, all communications with the journalists on the USS Kitty Hawk were cut off. We knew what that meant.

In Kuwait, it had been a dull, domestic, weird day. The National Assembly protested at Iraq's border incursions but spent much of its time debating a new law to protect public funds from embezzlement. An assembly member, Talal al-Saeed, even submitted a draft parliamentary bill to create a new government authority which would 'propagate good and forbid evil'. The daily press devoted only inside columns to Kuwait's negotiations to buy Warrior armoured vehicles from Britain.

But elsewhere, the day had begun more ominously. In Baghdad, President Saddam's spokesman had claimed once more that Kuwait was 'an integral part of Iraq that will be restored'.

The United Nations escorted a troop of journalists up to the new Iraq-Kuwait border - the one which the UN revised in favour of Kuwait but which Iraq does not accept - and happily displayed the wooden boxes (provenance: the Ministry of Defence, Jordan) from which the Iraqis had seized their old Silkworm missiles at the weekend, weapons which were taken before the eyes of the UN guards.

Yesterday morning, the Iraqis had made their third foray across the new frontier - the one they don't believe in - saying they had an agreement with the UN to remove equipment from the warehouses up to 15 January. But they had not asked permission from the UN and the Kuwaitis to do so. Why not? And why, for that matter, had we not hitherto been told that the Iraqi forays into the Umm Qasr naval base began eight months ago? In May 1991, it emerges, Iraq took 11 Silkworm missiles from the base and then another four less than a month later. It subsequently gave the four back - at the request of the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission - but kept the other 11. This weekend's first foray allowed them to 'recapture' those four missiles yet again.

Last night, the Kuwaitis were staying off the streets. Their satellite dishes - stolen by the Iraqis more than two years ago - are now more firmly established than ever. It is Western television, not the Arab stations - some of which failed to report Iraq's 1990 invasion for 48 hours - which they watch. Last night, they saw the old pictures of Saddam Hussein in his bunker, the much-used videotape of jets taking off from the Kitty Hawk, the French Defence Minister promising that his country's planes would be there in the first strike. And they debated, no doubt, the real motives behind the man who terrifies them now almost as much as he did in the last, boiling days of July 1990.

(Photograph omitted)