RALEIGH, N.C., OCT. 12 -- A U.S. citizen who left Kuwait this week after a grim 14-hour bus ride across the desert without food or water today described the journey as "the most miserable trip we ever took" and said Iraqi soldiers were practicing psychological warfare on the bus passengers.
Mohammed Issa, 37, a Jordanian-born special-education teacher who had been living in Kuwait with his wife and parents, was aboard a U.S.-chartered Boeing 747 that landed here today with 257 passengers from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait.
Seven of the group were Canadians, and 123 were U.S. citizens, authorities said. Some of the others were Arabs, but most were Americans' dependents, they said.
"They were trying to break us down mentally," Issa said in describing the five hours that his bus was stopped in the scorching desert between Kuwait City and Basra in Iraq while the passengers were under Iraqi guard. But, he said, he saw no physical abuse at the hands of the soldiers.
"They were saying, 'Sit down and don't leave the bus,' but they weren't really rude or anything," Issa said. He said he interpreted the soldiers' conduct as an attempt to provoke an incident. His reaction, he said, was "to count to 10 and just forget what's going on."
Issa's account conflicted somewhat with State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler's condemnation Thursday of what she called "simply outrageous" behavior by the Iraqis. Tutwiler had said some of the bus passengers were threatened with weapons.
Issa expressed caution in discussing the bus ordeal, saying, "We have to be very careful about what we say about the Iraqi government."
Issa said that the Iraqis temporarily detained at least 17 passengers, including him, and that he knew of at least one male passenger who was not allowed to continue the trip.
"I was never a hostage," Issa said. "They were trying to take us hostage, but we got lucky. They said, 'We got the word from Baghdad you guys can leave.' "
Issa, a former U.S. Marine, arrived here with his wife, Samira, 33, and his parents, Abdul Jaber, 69, and Saknah Jaber, 61, after an eight-hour flight from London. He said he was relieved to be back in the United States.
The economic embargo against Iraq is not working, he said. Lines for food were long, he said, but food was available and food prices recently have dropped. The Kuwaiti resistance to the Iraqis is fragmentary and disorganized, he added.
He described Kuwaitis as being "like rotten, spoiled kids" and said they do not know how to fight a war. Their resistance efforts, primarily setting Iraqi tanks and cars afire, have served only to keep the Iraqis "always alert," he said.
The Iraqis have been ruthless in attempting to quell resistance, he said, adding that he saw 13 homes that had been burned by Iraqis in retaliation for suspected resistance activity by their occupants.
This was the fourth so-called "repatriation" flight to arrive at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and the 10th U.S.-chartered flight to bring U.S. citizens or their dependents out of occupied Kuwait since the Persian Gulf crisis began with Iraq's invasion Aug. 2.
Altogether, a State Department official said, about 2,170 U.S. citizens or their relatives have left Kuwait since then.
Of today's arrivals, 154 were adults and 103 were children, including 24 infants, officials said.
Among the arriving passengers were two unaccompanied girls, ages 6 and 4, whose last names were withheld by federal officials. Joseph Dean, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, which helped to process the passengers, said the children were met by their mother, an American woman from Chicago who is married to a Kuwati oil engineer.
"They were clinging to her about as tight as you can cling to your mama, and she was clinging pretty tight to them," Dean said. He added that the children's father has been unable to gain permission to leave Kuwait.
Dean, who boarded the Pan American jet to greet the passengers moments after it landed in Raleigh at 4:41 p.m., said they looked "in decent shape."
The airport was ready for the refugees' arrival. An entire terminal, left vacant when strike-plagued Eastern Airlines moved out last year, was converted into a welcome center, complete with a nursery, an infirmary, a bank and psychologists available for counseling. Huge signs saying "Welcome" in English and Arabic were hung to greet passengers.
Informed estimates put the number of U.S. citizens or their dependents still in Kuwait and Iraq at about 700, down from an estimated 2,500 when the Iraqi invasion began. The numbers have fluctuated, a State Department source said, because many included foreigners whose young children were U.S. citizens, frequently because the children were born in the United States while their parents were on student visas.
Another arriving passenger, a Kuwaiti-born woman who left the plane in a wheelchair, poignantly described the mixed feelings that she and other Arabs felt at the conflict between Iraq and Kuwait.
"Only the big people fight, and the small people get crushed," said the woman, who spoke to reporters but would not give her name. In Kuwait, she said, the scene was one of soldiers, burned houses, shortages of some food staples and "scared" people.
"They're afraid of war," she said.