JIDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA, OCT. 13 -- Kuwait's exiled prime minister said today that democratic measures would be instituted in his country once it is freed from Iraqi occupation, but he urged Kuwaitis to muzzle their political differences until then in the interest of unifying against Iraq.
The remarks by Crown Prince Saad Abdullah Sabah were made to an audience of nearly 1,000 exiled Kuwaitis gathered in this Red Sea coastal resort to discuss the future of their homeland. The three-day conference that opened today was called by Kuwait's emir, Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah, to demonstrate the support his government commands and to address criticism by some Kuwaitis of its actions before and during the Iraqi invasion.
Many in the all-male group who had begun pressing the ruling Sabah family to restore political freedoms long before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August said they were heartened by the crown prince's remarks.
But some opposition activists said they intend to press the Sabahs to form a new "government of national unity" that would include all political groups in order to better advance Kuwait's national cause, especially among Western nations, sources here said. Other opposition figures maintained that this is the wrong time to push for such a move.
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has thrust the emirate's domestic political squabbles to front stage. Some American lawmakers have questioned why U.S. military forces sent to the gulf should help restore to power a royal family. Kuwait's 1962 constitution allowed an elected parliament. The emir dissolved it in 1986, alleging an international conspiracy against Kuwait following terrorist attacks against members of the ruling family and the French and U.S. embassies.
The emir and the prime minister are likely to view any demand for government changes now as a challenge to their control of Kuwait's political scene. They are also reluctant to make any moves that might be taken by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as signs of political weakness, government sources have said.
The crown prince hinted at this fear in his opening remarks. "While freedom of speech and thought is a right well-known by our people," he said, "it would not be patriotic . . . especially in these conditions of enemy occupation, that anyone disparage our national unity."
But noting that Kuwait's leadership "believes there are various lessons to be learned from this adversity," the crown prince said that "after the liberation" of Kuwait, the government will "under the constitution of 1962, work to consolidate democracy and deepen popular participation, which has always been our objective."
Saddam has sought to justify his occupation and annexation of Kuwait in part by saying that its royal family and other Persian Gulf leaders are corrupt and anti-democratic.
However, Kuwait is the only state on the Arabian Peninsula with a constitution guaranteeing popular participation in government. The issue among Kuwaitis is putting that constitution into practice.
The emotional standing ovation accorded the emir by his Kuwaiti subjects today appeared to endorse what most Kuwaitis say is not under debate: the emir's constitutionally guaranteed role as head of state. Whatever their political stripe, none of these Kuwaitis are demanding his ouster. Seated beneath a huge banner proclaiming "Liberation is our slogan, our way and our target," the emir thanked Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations for their support.
In his comments, the prime minister appeared to be meeting criticism from some Kuwaitis that his government had been irresponsible in not alerting its military after Iraq's troop buildup, in failing to lead its defense forces on the day of the invasion and in fleeing the country so quickly. He implied that the royal family and other government ministers would have been killed had they not fled. In exile, he said, the government has been able to promote Kuwait's cause.