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  • Iraq Special Report
  •   Kuwaiti Leaders Eagerly Anticipate Strikes at Iraq

    By John Lancaster
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, February 10, 1998; Page A15

    KUWAIT, Feb. 9—While many Arab governments are deeply skeptical about the wisdom of U.S. military action against Iraq, the leaders of this tiny Persian Gulf emirate are brimming with excitement, even optimism, over a looming confrontation that they regard as the best opportunity in years to stamp out the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

    Even as Washington struggles to lower expectations for the outcome of possible airstrikes against Iraq, Kuwaiti officials say they are confident that a U.S.-led bombing campaign would have a real chance of toppling the regime, either by killing the Iraqi president or by triggering a popular uprising or coup.

    Such attitudes may contain an element of wishful thinking among Kuwaitis, who still harbor bitter memories of the 1990 Iraqi invasion that left their country a shambles. But they also help explain why only Kuwait and Bahrain among Washington's Arab allies have granted permission for U.S. warplanes to fly bombing missions from their soil if diplomacy fails to persuade Saddam Hussein to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors scouring his country for evidence of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

    They also reflect a widespread belief in Kuwait and other gulf countries that anything short of a massive air assault would merely serve to boost the Iraqi leader's prestige in the Arab world while doing little to thwart his ability to threaten his neighbors.

    "There is no doubt it will pose a serious and devastating threat to the Iraqi regime, and I think our allies know exactly where to hit where it will really hurt," Sheik Saud Nasir Sabah, the information minister and a nephew of the Kuwaiti emir, Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah, said in an interview today.

    The information minister was careful to emphasize that Kuwait shares with its Arab allies a desire to find "a peaceful and diplomatic solution" to the current crisis. On the other hand, he said, if U.S. and British warplanes target Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard or other elite forces, there is a real chance the Iraqi people would "rise against him."

    "If you weaken him, then you thereby strengthen the other side," Saud Nasir Sabah said. "Under the ashes there's a lot of flame."

    Sabah made his observations on the same day that Defense Secretary William S. Cohen met here with the emir, Crown Prince Saad Abdullah Sabah and Defense Minister Salem Sabah to discuss the possible use against Iraq of U.S. F-117 stealth aircraft and A-10 ground-attack jets based at Jabir Air Base in Kuwait.

    Kuwait's military role has assumed more importance following Cohen's disclosure Sunday that he would not ask Saudi Arabia to participate directly in any air campaign against Iraq, except perhaps as a base for refueling and communications aircraft. Cohen toured the Kuwaiti base before departing for Oman.

    Saudi reticence stems in part from concern that the United States is not prepared to seek to oust Saddam Hussein from power in its latest confrontation with Iraq. U.S. officials have in recent days emphasized that airstrikes would be aimed at thwarting Saddam Hussein's ability to develop illegal weapons rather than toppling the regime. Although Washington has promised that any bombing campaign would far exceed the "pinprick" strikes of past confrontations with Iraq, even a major attack is sure to fall short of the massive aerial bombardment that failed to dislodge Iraqi troops from Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

    For that and other reasons, many Kuwaitis do not fully share their leaders' enthusiasm for a military confrontation with Baghdad. Anxieties have been heightened by public service announcements advising people on techniques for sealing rooms against chemical attack, such as closing air vents and stuffing wet clothes under doors. The government has been importing gas masks for distribution or sale at local shops and supermarkets.

    The American Embassy recently advised U.S. citizens here to stock up on water and gasoline and to make sure their passports are in order in case they have to make a hasty run for the Saudi border.

    "Kuwait has accepted to use its territory . . . as a launching pad, and this puts us at a lot more danger, because now we are part and party to the aggression against Iraq," said Abdullah Shayji, a professor of political science at Kuwait University. "Deep down inside, there is a sinking feeling that something very dangerous and very scary and very volatile could happen."

    Although the local stock market has dipped sharply in recent days, there are no obvious signs of panic in Kuwait, now enjoying a pleasant early spring after plentiful winter rains turned the desert green. Schools are functioning normally, and ordinary Kuwaiti men continue to discuss the issues of the day with business leaders and politicians at nightly social gatherings called diwaniyas.

    During one such gathering Sunday night, robed men sipped cardamom coffee from tiny china cups and expressed general agreement with the government's decision to participate in an American-led air campaign against Iraq, if it comes to that. Their only fear was that the United States would not go far enough in trying to topple Saddam Hussein. If that were to happen, said one man, a former cabinet minister, "It might strengthen his position. If you don't hit him very badly, he will be another hero."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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