Hakem Mutairi is on trial in the country often called the most pro-American in the Arab world, charged with "spreading rumors that caused harm to Kuwait." But his real crime, according to Mutairi's supporters in Kuwait's powerful community of hard-line Islamic politicians, is that he criticized the United States.

In speaking out in a televised interview against the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Mutairi also challenged the official orthodoxy in Kuwait, a tiny emirate that owes its continued existence to the United States. "We thought America was a friend for our country, but we think now it is a colonial power," Mutairi said last week, summing up the evolving views among conservatives here. Kuwaitis "are very angry," he added. "They think Kuwait now is not free."

Mutairi is the face of anti-American sentiment in Kuwait -- religious, politically influential and on the rise. Public statements such as his were seldom heard here before Sept. 11, 2001. But now, as the United States threatens to use Kuwait as a launching pad for an invasion of neighboring Iraq, even a crackdown by the Kuwaiti government on such people as Mutairi cannot obscure the burgeoning resentment.

It took two attacks last fall on U.S. soldiers based here to awaken Americans and Kuwaitis to how much admiration for the United States had waned in the years since a U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991. Some of the resentments that have spread through the rest of the Arab world have reached even this pro-American enclave -- bitterness about perceived U.S. targeting of Muslims in the war on terrorism and anger at Washington's support for Israel in the conflict with Palestinians.

Islamic leaders here regularly complain about U.S. pressure on Kuwait to adopt American values. They decry invasion plans, despite lingering enmity toward Iraq. And they espouse the view, voiced elsewhere in the Middle East, of the United States as a would-be "colonial" power. So worried were the country's rulers by the first attacks on U.S. soldiers that they began rounding up men with suspected ties to radicals and this month issued a decree prohibiting Muslims from harming foreigners in Kuwait.

That ruling did not prevent another attack on Americans today. Two civilian contractors with the U.S. military here were shot, one fatally, as they drove down a highway near a camp used by U.S. soldiers.

The official view is that anti-American sentiment is a fringe movement, the attacks "isolated incidents," as Mohammed Salem Sabah, minister of state for foreign affairs, put it in an interview. "If you talk about the rise of anti-Americanism, Kuwait will be the last place where you will find anti-Americanism," he said.

But on the streets and in the diwaniyas -- traditional nighttime social and political gatherings where Kuwaiti men conduct the country's business -- many say the government has not yet come to terms with the shift in Kuwaitis' thinking.

"After the liberation of Kuwait, all people in Kuwait appreciated and respected the government and people of America," said Duaij Khalaf Shammary, an aspiring Islamic politician and businessman who was among more than 50 Kuwaitis the other night at a diwaniya dominated by questions about a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. "But now America tries to interfere in our affairs."

Kuwait's newly vocal complaints about the United States are different and subtler than those elsewhere in the region. They do not burn the U.S. flag here, there are no antiwar rallies and no one betrays sympathy for the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. Even the most conservative Islamic political leader professes gratitude for the U.S. coalition that kicked Hussein out of Kuwait and has guarded the country ever since.

There are no independent opinion polls to measure how widespread discontent with the United States has become or test competing theories about why criticism is on the rise. But the fact that it exists at all -- and is growing rapidly, according to dozens of Kuwaitis interviewed across the country's political spectrum -- marks a setback for the United States.

Saud Nasir Sabah, a former ambassador to the United States, oil minister and member of Kuwait's ruling family, blamed the government, arguing that even after the Sept. 11 attacks it has done little to rein in Islamic militants.

"The U.S. was there for us," he said in an interview, but since Sept. 11, "we haven't been there for them. You need a strong government to do this; we don't have one. It's been a failure on the part of government to react to these people."

Right after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, he published an extraordinary public indictment of his family's response, saying anti-American religious extremists had "hijacked" the Kuwaiti government. "Now, in over a year since I made that statement, nothing has been done," he said last week.

But in Kuwait today it is not just Islamic conservatives of the sort criticized by Sabah who are voicing disagreement with the United States. Even among Kuwaitis opposed to Islamic conservatives, the view of the United States has soured, suggesting the extent to which the Kuwait-U.S. alliance has been based on common opposition to Iraq rather than a broader agenda.

"America is a friend of Kuwait because they saved us from the occupation, but that's it," said Abdullah Nibari, a self-described leftist leader in the Kuwaiti parliament. "It's not more than that."

Like other reformers here, Nibari said the United States, despite its pressure on the ruling family to revive a suspended parliament after the 1991 war, has not helped foster true democracy in Kuwait, but has been more interested in maintaining the status quo. And the political status quo today favors Islamic conservatives, who took advantage of the resumed elections to become the most powerful force in the National Assembly and have used their power to block voting rights for women and impose sex segregation at Kuwait University. Kuwaitis share the goal of getting rid of Hussein, Nibari said, "but apart from that we find very little to agree with the American policy."

Such sentiments are all the more striking because of their backdrop: a 6,880-square-mile state on the Persian Gulf that looks like a lost suburb of Los Angeles. The first thing visitors see as they get off an airplane at Kuwait International Airport is a Starbucks coffee shop on the right. On a drive down the streets, the preponderance of American fast-food icons overwhelms -- not just the ubiquitous McDonald's, but also Applebee's, Baskin-Robbins, Chili's and more. The telephone book lists 39 Burger King restaurants.

The malls, clothing stores, four-wheel drive vehicles and movie theaters that have multiplied over the last dozen years suggest the extent to which Kuwait tightened its embrace of the West following its searing seven-month occupation by Iraqi troops. There are also newer reminders that the Kuwaiti government has staked itself firmly in the U.S. camp: Signs along the highway to Iraq hail the American troops who occupy one-quarter of the country, and a huge banner was unfurled last week in a Kuwait City traffic circle saying "America & Allies God Bless You All."

Much of the cheerleading is a response to the attacks against U.S. soldiers last fall. In October, gunmen shot two Marines, killing one; a month later, a Kuwaiti traffic cop opened fire and wounded two Army soldiers. Since then, "We got angry because of the crime committed against Americans in Kuwait," said Yusuf Halail, a real estate agent and self-described conservative. His view, expressed in a recent interview, is shared by many Kuwaitis. "All Kuwaitis were against it, except a few. Not all fundamentalists are against America."

But others, like Islamic political leader Abdul Razak Shuyji, are ambivalent. "All around the Arab world, people have negative feelings toward America. In Kuwait, we have a special case, a paradox: How can we be thankful toward America for what it did for us in '91 and at the same time against America's current plans for a war in Iraq?" Shuyji asked one recent afternoon.

The scene in his garden suggested the dilemma. Being anti-American now is not just a matter of politics, Shuyji said, it's about "this American way of life" surfacing in Kuwait, about it undermining traditional relations between men and women. In other words, "it's not the fast food, the malls," but the change in Kuwaitis' behavior. "I notice that a lot of people in Kuwait buy shirts for their children with slogans they can't read because they don't know English. Even such things are ways of transferring ideas and culture."

As he was saying this, between sips of fresh-squeezed pomegranate and mango juice, his young son walked in, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the English-language logo "Action Man." When the irony was duly noted, Shuyji could only laugh. "We care about colors mostly," he said apologetically.

As for Mutairi, he has become perhaps the most public example of how far the Kuwaiti government is willing to go to defend its alliance with the United States. In a country where officials often tout freedom of speech, Mutairi is standing trial because of a television interview in which he criticized the war in Afghanistan and the Kuwaiti government's alleged torture of citizens who had fought there on the side of the Taliban. Twelve Kuwaitis are interned by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for taking part in the war, and Mutairi said in an interview that he believes the U.S. government may have pressured the Kuwaitis to make a case against him.

Recently, he confronted the United States directly, meeting with a senior embassy official here. His account of the conversation suggests just how broad a critique of American policy some here are now offering.

"I told them, 'You should understand why people, not just in Kuwait but also Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, why they are very angry. They start to think about how we can solve this problem of colonialism,' " Mutairi related.

His American interlocutors, he said, framed the issue differently.

To them, it was a question of Kuwait's gratitude for a freedom it could never have secured without the United States. "They said, 'We are friends and we made you free from Iraq.' I told them, 'We thank you for everything you have done for my country, but you can't make this a reason for colonialism,' " Mutairi said. "America came to protect our country, but now America uses this area to attack another country."

A Kuwaiti official walks away from the scene of an attack on Americans in what is often called the most pro-American country in the Arab world.