KHAFJI, SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 14 -- Houses are empty, stores are shuttered. The stoplights work, but traffic has all but disappeared. Kuwaiti exiles sip tea and hope for liberation. Saudi marines hunker in beachfront foxholes, looking north. They are waiting for the shooting to start.
With war against Iraq expected almost momentarily, Saudi Arabia's main border crossing with Kuwait has become no man's land, less than a long cannon shot away from enemy artillery.
Civilians, many of them driving vehicles packed with household goods, streamed steadily southward today, escorted out of town by police and a few public officials. By mid-afternoon on a windblown, rainy day, the streets of Khafji, a city of 45,000 people in normal times, were all but deserted.
"People are shaking a little," said Fuad Abu-Bakr, manager of the Khafji Beach Hotel, a tourist motor inn overlooking the green water of the Persian Gulf. "The government is still here and my staff is still here, but people are leaving, and most of the houses are empty." Abu-Bakr said he intends to stay in Khafji and keep the hotel open. The restaurant, however, would close after dinner today.
Khafji, on the gulf coast about five miles south of Saudi Arabia's northern frontier, is the country's main point of contact with Kuwait, which was invaded and occupied by Iraqi soldiers Aug. 2. Since that day, the highway at Khafji has served as a crossing for Kuwaiti refugees and a focal point of tension between the Saudis and Iraq. Now, with the approach of the U.N. deadline that authorizes the use of force to dislodge the Iraqis, the pressure has tightened an extra notch.
There is no evidence of panic. Indeed, Abu-Bakr and others attributed the exodus to the fact that schoolchildren finished midterm exams Sunday and have a two-week vacation, which they will spend somewhere else.
Still, supermarkets and convenience stores have been depleted of food, and most foreign nationals who work as shopkeepers have left town. A radio plays "Baghdad Betty" and "Baghdad Bob" on the English-language "Voice of Peace," an Iraqi propaganda station that intersperses 1970s rock music with news about anti-war demonstrations and advice for U.S. troops: "Peace is more precious than oil, isn't that so?" asks Betty.
The Voice of Peace was a waste of time today in Khafji, where large numbers of Saudi marines patrolled the beaches and manned machine guns in bunkers carved in the sand dunes. Off-duty troops thronged Khafji's telephone exchange, making long-distance calls from outside booths.
The Saudi military presence seemed designed to offer reassurance rather than credible defense or deterrence. The heavy work will be done by U.S., British and Saudi armored units stationed farther inland in the desert and moving steadily and massively northward to positions within striking distance of the border.
In Khafji, by contrast, there are almost no U.S. soldiers, no evidence of troop movement and little activity of any kind. The border crossing is virtually derelict, the Kuwaiti customs gates abandoned, the Saudi side attended by a single bearded and robed official who has a simple message for visitors: "It is forbidden to be here without permission from the local government."
Hard by the customs shed is a fenced encampment and tent city populated by several hundred Kuwaitis and other foreign nationals. They are seeking asylum in Saudi Arabia, but will be held in limbo until someone vouches for them.
Outsiders and the refugees are not allowed to speak to each other. The held seem comfortable nonetheless, living in tents and keeping their personal goods in large, late-model Chevrolets and other handsome American cars -- standard transportation in countries where gasoline still costs less than 60 cents a gallon.
Kuwaiti interests are closely monitored by exiled government functionaries working out of a seedy, abandoned office building perched on a sandy hillside in Khafji. The leader of the delegation, a Kuwaiti police official who would not give his name, said the last group of refugees, 40 adults and 20 children, left Kuwait Saturday. The Iraqis have kept the border closed ever since.
"That's my country right over there. I grew up with it and I know every centimeter of it," the official said. "We're waiting to see what happens. I want to go back, and I feel that I'll be home one day, and, if not me, then my children."
The official has two telephones, two easy chairs, a couch and a portable heater. Posters decorate the walls, bearing slogans denouncing Iraqi aggression and pleading for "Kuwait, small but not alone." A servant brings tea in tiny glass cups so new the paper labels are still glued on.
The showpiece of Kuwaiti headquarters is a backyard bomb shelter, built for 40 people and buried deep in the sand. It has two rows of benches, fans for ventilation, a toilet, a telephone, six bottles of oxygen and two radios -- one for Saudi stations, one for Iraqi stations.
The Kuwaitis have installed reinforced metal doors, one of which is equipped with a peephole. This was so the occupants could see the cage where the exiles will keep a pair of lovebirds. The Kuwaitis will know when there is a poison gas attack, the police official explained, because the lovebirds will drop dead.