Staring across his tomato crop and beyond a five-foot-high sand embankment that delineates the border between Iraq and Kuwait, Kadhim Mohammed Abid peered through the noontime glare into what President Saddam Hussein used to call Iraq's 19th province.
There was not much to see on the Kuwaiti side: More desiccated landscape. A few soaring radio transmitters. A hazy U.N. observation post at the end of the horizon.
It was what he could not glimpse that troubled him. Somewhere off in the distance, a ballooning contingent of U.S. soldiers, dispatched by the Pentagon in preparation for a possible invasion of Iraq, has been training in the desert.
"What are they doing there, so close to Iraq?" he said. "Do they want to invade us?"
That is the question of the moment in this forlorn border town. In 1990, Safwan was a key staging area for Hussein's army as it prepared to invade Kuwait. By February 1991, however, it became Exit 1 on the "highway of death," the name given to the road on which hundreds of Iraqi tanks and troop-carrying trucks retreating from Kuwait were incinerated by U.S. airstrikes. Scores of homes were flattened and dozens of people killed as U.S. tanks pounded the town.
Now, people in Safwan wonder and worry whether they will once again have front-row seats to a war between Iraq and the United States. But unlike in other parts of Iraq, where people express confidence that Iraqi soldiers and armed civilians will repel American forces, there is a deep sense of unease here.
Because Safwan sits in the middle of a U.N.-monitored demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait, the nearest Iraqi tank -- or any heavy military equipment, for that matter -- is more than six miles away. The zone is narrower on the other side of the border, meaning that Kuwaiti, and presumably American, armaments are less than three miles from the town.
As recently as a year ago, about 2,000 U.S. soldiers were in Kuwait, largely serving as a tripwire against possible Iraqi aggression and maintaining weapons positioned since the end of the Persian Gulf War. Now, about 10,000 U.S. troops are stationed there, many training in the desert, near the border. Although U.S. officials have said many of the soldiers have been sent to Kuwait for routine military exercises, the Army has acknowledged transferring larger-than-normal amounts of equipment there in recent months, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters that would play a critical role in any invasion of Iraq.
In Safwan, the closest Iraqi town to the Kuwaiti border, nobody interviewed in the presence of a government minder said he felt exposed. But Abid said he would do something that few people in Baghdad publicly contemplate in the event of war: retreat.
"I will not be able to continue living here," said the 65-year-old father of six. "We know what happened last time. There is no way the women and children can stay here."
In 1991, he said, his mud-brick house was demolished by U.S. shelling, and U.S. tanks rolled through his fields, turning his tomatoes into a blood-red puree. "When they came here, they were shooting all the way," he said. "They destroyed everything."
At the town's only medical clinic, a doctor said that apprehension is growing, particularly because the U.S. government has not stopped its threats to use military force against Iraq even though Hussein has allowed U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country.
"People are getting more afraid," said the physician, Shaker Mahoud. "People say, 'Why do they want to attack us? Iraq is cooperating completely. There is no problem, but the Americans are just trying to make a problem out of nothing.' "
Safwan is a dusty, decaying place. Most buildings are crumbling and most cars appear to be barely running. The markets are filled with locally grown vegetables, packaged foods from Syria and neon-colored plastic toys.
Before the Gulf War and the imposition of U.N. economic sanctions, people here used to profit from cross-border trade with Kuwait. But the border crossing, a small white building next to a large mosaic of Hussein, is now closed to everyone but those in U.N. vehicles. Safwan residents have been forced to eke out a living by growing tomatoes, onions and garlic.
Despite the economic disparity and Iraq's historic claims to Kuwait -- which were reiterated categorically after the Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi takeover -- people here said they were content to live at peace with their neighbor.
"What we heard from our grandfathers is that Kuwait is Iraqi land," said Jumah Farhan, a driver who shuttles people between the town and nearby farming villages. "But now, we don't have any problems with them."
That is also what Hussein's government has been saying. This spring, Iraq pledged never to invade Kuwait again. And last month, Iraq returned several tons of documents seized from Kuwait, sending trucks through the Safwan checkpoint for the first time in years.
Kuwaiti officials said they viewed Iraq's promises with skepticism, noting that Iraq still had not provided information on several hundred Kuwaitis listed as missing since the Iraqi invasion. "We welcome their statements," a senior Kuwaiti official said recently, "but we want to make sure their promises are genuine."
At a roadside stall that sells rusted canisters of cooking gas, a few miles down the highway from an assemblage of bombed-out vehicles known as the "tank graveyard," several middle-aged men said they were sure that Iraq could get along with Kuwait. But the United States, they agreed, was another matter.
"The Americans want our oil," said Jabber Hillel as he looked toward a nearby refinery billowing orange flames and acrid smoke. "They want to control us."
Even so, he said he hoped the dispute between Iraq and the United States could be resolved peacefully. "We know war," said Hillel, a 47-year-old farmer. "We don't want to repeat it."