KHAFJI, SAUDI ARABIA, AUG. 17 -- The scene in this Saudi-Kuwaiti border town today was one of considerable confusion and sometimes near hysteria as hundreds of refugees from Kuwait continued to flee the Iraqi occupation, making their way into the kingdom across unmarked desert tracks.
But there was remarkably little sign of any Saudi military buildup and to all appearances no U.S. troops have come this far north yet to help defend the kingdom from a possible Iraqi attack along the main north-south axis leading into its oil-rich Eastern Province.
Local sources said they had seen a few U.S. officers accompanied by several Saudis visiting the area a few days ago but that the Americans had not stayed long. No Americans -- civilian or military -- were in evidence today.
A few Saudi tanks and trailers carrying other war materiel were seen making their way slowly up the 180-mile, mostly six-lane coastal highway from Dhahran. And Saudi troops were digging in around the port of Mishab and other strategic points along the highway.
But there was no apparent sense of urgency. Indeed, in the stifling early afternoon 110-degree heat and wind-blown desert sand, it seemed hard to believe that anyone could fight a war in such conditions.
In fact, the streets of this border town and oil port were almost deserted as everyone took refuge inside air-conditioned homes and buildings to wait out the sweltering heat until dusk.
Saudi officials and refugees said Iraqi troops were just three miles up the road from the Kuwaiti border post and the first Saudi positions less than two miles away. A thin line of Saudi tanks and troop positions could be seen running along a desert track south of the border, but it was impossible to see any Iraqi troops.
Hundreds of Pakistani, Afghan, Egyptian and Thai workers were gathered outside the Kuwaiti border post with their few belongings slung over their shoulders after arriving here this morning. Some had crossed the desert on foot.
Wealthy Kuwaiti and some Egyptian refugees came in big cars and jeeps in the continuing helter-skelter flight from the Iraqi occupation, each telling horror stories of alleged Iraqi army misbehavior.
Saudi officials and Kuwaiti refugees said there appeared to be no fixed policy being followed by Iraqi troops toward those trying to flee Kuwait. On Thursday, they said, one group of Iraqi troops had intercepted and turned back a caravan of 40 cars carrying refugees from Kuwait City. But other soldiers had allowed some cars through, sometimes after extorting gold bracelets and rings from the women or taking a car or two.
Inside a weakly air conditioned room at the border post, a group of Kuwaiti women and children were waiting to be processed by Saudi officials. One angry woman raised her bare arms to show that her jewelry had been stolen. Another said Iraqi soldiers had taken one of her family's cars in return for allowing them through to the Saudi border.
A third woman said she had just arrived after an eight-hour trip from Kuwait City. Her family had started out in three cars but only two had made it across the desert and through the Iraqi patrols.
The haphazard Iraqi way of dealing with Kuwaiti refugees seems to belie reports in Dhahran that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was deliberately encouraging Kuwaitis to leave now to reduce resistance to Iraqi rule and make easier its repopulation with Iraqis.
Saudi officials estimate that around 200,000 of Kuwait's 700,000 citizens have fled to Saudi Arabia; hundreds more are coming every day. One Saudi official helping the arriving refugees said a small number of Iraqi soldiers also were fleeing Kuwait. Two came across this morning and two last night, he said.
The Iraqi soldiers disguised themselves in the long, flowing robes and headdress worn by Kuwaitis and sometimes even in women's dress, the official said. Earlier press reports here said 12 Iraqi soldiers had defected in one group.