| Confronting Iraq:|
Live From Kuwait
With Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
What is the mood in Kuwait as an expected U.S.-led invasion of Iraq draws ever closer? How is the Kuwaiti government and populace preparing for the war next door? What is life like for the U.S. service people stationed in Kuwait? How is the experience so far for western journalists embedded with U.S. forces?
Washington Post Style correspondent Richard Leiby was live from Kuwait on Friday, March 14 at 11 a.m. ET, to field questions and comments about the scene on the ground in Kuwait.
The transcript follows.
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Richard Leiby: Good morning, Washington. I'm eager to answer your questions as best I can, but bear with me because I'm new to the Web site chat thing and a technological dunce. Also, please understand that I'll be basing my observations on roughly 10 days of reporting, which includes a few jet-lagged days during which I was essentially incoherent, as evidenced, no doubt, by my dispatches for Style. So: I'm no "expert" on Kuwait or Islam, though I've just spent a few interesting nights with the Shiite Muslims here, and I've interviewed dozens of Kuwaitis at various levels of society. I am, however, something an expert on the offerings of the buffet at the Hilton resort where the military and media are ensconced. Thanks for having me.
College Park, Md.: So, how are things in the "democratic" kingdom of Kuwait? What have been your observations of the social conditions there among the ruling families, the "guest workers" from Korea, etc., and the status of women? Is the Kuwaiti regime worth protecting or not?
Richard Leiby: Democracy is a relative thing here. As you probably know, women can't vote and there is a vast divide between the upper crust of Kuwaiti citizens and the majority immigrant population. The imported foreign workers do the heavy lifting and dirty jobs that Kuwaitis don't deign to do. I've been in households where the Filipino help is treated as virtually invisible. In the local press I've read reports of Kuwaitis abusing their servants. As far a preparedness for attack here--a subject I covered earlier this week--the immigrants don't seem to count for much. A ranking minister told me they'd just have to buy their own gas masks -- which run about $50. If you make $150 a month as a maid, that's a huge amount of money.
As far as women, many wear the veil and burqa and many don't. The religious police do not descend upon unveiled women, as they do in Saudi Arabia. The Westernized Kuwaiti and Lebanese women I've met have not been too vocal in their criticism of life here -- but then, maybe they'd rather not be candid.
Is the Kuwaiti regime worth defending? I can't answer that. It's a U.S. policy matter.
Washington, D.C.: I've heard that the reason the administration want to invade Iraq very soon is because of the weather. Waiting means hotter weather and sandstorms, which are bad for the troops.
Richard Leiby: I've written about the weather here -- my editors LOVE weather stories -- but it's disingenuous, I think, to say the administration is rushing to war to beat the summer heat. Fierce sandstorms have already played havoc at some desert bases, and a fog of dust settled over Kuwait City the other day. It was like being in a heavy London fog, except your hair turned brown from the dust. The troops would prefer not to fight in heavy chem-bio suits, I'm sure, but they train in them for just that contingency.
Today was quite pleasant here, in the 70s. I'm told temps will hit 80s in the next few days, but as "winter" exits, there are weird variations, sometimes hourly. Excuse me while I close the patio door -- it's getting quite chilly!
Wheaton, Md.: Do the people of Kuwait still realize that, had it not been for the U.S., they'd still be under Iraq occupation?
Richard Leiby: Wheaton in the house! Big shoutouts to my former address near the Glenmont metro!
Anyway, yes, the vast majority of Kuwaitis revere Americans and have expressed gratitude for our military presence here. Some do wonder privately whether the U.S. agenda is to topple Syria next and they express concern about "neo-colonialist" tendencies of the Bush administration. But by and large they realize we saved their butts after the 1990 invasion by Iraq.
Cumberland, Md.: Is their any expectation in the area when the war will start?
Richard Leiby: Some young, rich Kuwaitis canceled a party we wanted to go to last night because they were convinced the war would start today. The papers here have been full of headlines predicting March 11 (whoops) and March 17, and just about every Kuwaiti wants me to tell them exactly when war will commence. I have no direct line to Messrs. Bush and Rumsfeld, of course -- but we keep hearing "soon." Some reporters here have been hearing that for two months now. It's like predicting the weather. And in any event, I think the Pentagon wants some element of surprise...
Arlington, Va.: Okay, I'll ask. What in fact IS the mood in Kuwait as an expected U.S.-led invasion of Iraq draws ever closer? How is the Kuwaiti government and populace preparing for the war next door? From what you said, seems like the servants will fend for themselves, but what are the "non-servant classes" doing?
Are duct tape and plastic sheeting hot items in their capital?
Richard Leiby: The mood is restive, the mood is uneasy, the mood is upbeat, the mood is ... wait, let me look out the window. Seriously, the mood is unsettled. As I reported earlier this week, the panicked people have probably already left --and that includes, perhaps, some non-servants. But otherwise people are going to restaurants, smoking the "sheesha" (bong-like tobacco pipes) and going to mosques. Frankly, they feel pretty well protected: There's a veritable Maginot line of U.S. and coalition forces in the north and we have set up Patriot missile batteries throughout the country to intercept Scuds and al-Samouds. "No duct tape frenzy," a Canadian school principal told me earlier this week. But he did say that fewer ex-patriates are gathering a Starbucks lately -- perhaps because they don't want to be obvious targets for extremists. Fortunately, we have a Starbucks right here at well-fortified Camp Hilton.
Singapore: Hi Mr Leiby, beyond all the politics, how has life been like as a foreign journalist waiting to get into Iraq? What measures are you taking, if any, to blend in? What are some your feelings, are you excited, nervous?
Richard Leiby: Life as a foreign journalist has been, at least for me, pretty sweet. I'm not bunking in the desert amid howling dust storms, eating MREs (meals ready to eat -- or, as the joke goes, "meals rarely exit" -- they cause constipation).
More than 600 journalists have "embedded" with the troops; they live with them. I'm told that an equal number have chosen to go "unilateral" as I have -- that is, we'll take our chances on our own, hoping to caravan into Iraq in a mad frenzy.
It's unclear what will happen at the border once war starts--we could be totally shut out.
As far as self-protection, sometimes I carry a gas mask when I leave the hotel. I wear civilian clothes, no cammo, and my Arabic press badge. I'm not nervous, just cautious. Thanks for asking!
Washington, D.C.: Is there anyone in Kuwait who is aware of the Senior Bush's diplomat who allegedly gave Saddam a green light just prior to the Aug. '90 invasion? It somehow seems strange that the "democratic" country has only a vague suspicion of colonialism but no concrete examples of the U.S. acting in ways that place its own interests ahead of Kuwait's.
Richard Leiby: Yes, the famous July 1990 conversation between former Amb. April Glaspie and President Hussein is often mentioned by Kuwaitis here. The Iraqi-made transcript has been available on the Internet for some time. What remains in dispute is whether, as you say, she gave Saddam a "green light." I'm not qualified to say, but I think people should read it.
Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Leiby - Thanks for the enlightening article about Kuwaitis and their attitudes towards the upcoming conflict. I have to admit a degree of bitterness, though. Lately, I've been overwhelmed with articles about how our young soldiers are toughing it out in the dessert and all these rich Kuwaitis are just sitting around drinking coffee without a care in the world! Does Kuwait even have an army? What will their role, if any, be in the war?
washingtonpost.com: In Kuwait City, the Calm Before a Mud Storm, (Post, March 11)
Richard Leiby: Thanks for reading that story, Alexandria. I don't mean to give the impression that Kuwaiti citizens are a cosseted lot, but so far my conclusion is that they sort of expect that Uncle Sam -- and God -- will protect them. Kuwait has an army -- its soldiers are out and about -- and some other Gulf nations have deployed troops here as part of the Al-Jazeera (Peninsula) Shield effort.
Sorry, I don't have reliable information on the Kuwaiti Army's exact role. The Arab Times did have a story this week headlined, "Kuwait not taking part in war," and quoting the defense minister as saying so.
So perhaps their role is passive. I do know that they're protecting me, personally. They've established a perimeter around the Hilton, where they screen all bags and search our cars with the help of friendly dogs. They also have a guy perched on an armored vehicle with a big machine gun. So I give props to the Kuwait Army...
Mattoon, Ill.: How do the troops feel about having so many reporters embedded with them? Are they glad to have you there as a source of information and possible contact with their families, or are they apprehensive about having the media "in the way" when the war starts?
(P.S. Say hey to Post reporter Monte Reel for me)
Richard Leiby: Dear Matoon: I'm not in the field with my more courageous journalistic brethren and sistren, so I can't say for sure how the troops are reacting to pesky reporters at the moment. But earlier interaction seemed positive. Some of our embedded guys and gals have gathered email messages from the troops and transmitted them home. Some have lent them cell and sat phones to call loved ones. I'm sure that some forward commanders -- the ones who direct infantry units at the front -- are apprehensive about a reporter "getting in the way" or getting hurt. I reported on some of this in a piece several days ago. Today an Army captain told me he thinks the two sides will learn to get along. But he cautioned that media had better be friendly and fall in line if they expect access.
Tysons Corner, Va.: Do Kuwaitis and Americans expect most Iraqi troops to surrender quickly once the fighting starts? Just how much attachment among Iraqis is there to the Hussein regime, do you feel? Is he likely to hide a lot of troops in civilian homes and churches, schools, etc.?
Richard Leiby: I hate to generalize, although that is my job. Yes, I'd say most Americans and Kuwaitis expect MOST Iraqi troops to fold quickly. They think no Iraqi wants to die to protect Saddam, but mention the possibility of a strong nationalist streak. As for Saddam's strategy, we know from past experience that he's used human shields -- including foreigners taken hostage in 1990 after he invaded Kuwait.
Depressed: I wish you could send my reservist husband a message for me. Tell him to come home.
Richard Leiby: Dear Depressed: Let me close by saying I hope he gets home soon too.
Thanks, everyone, for your perceptive and interesting questions. I hope I've been able to convey some sense of the scene here.
And as they say here, "May peace be upon you."
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