KUWAIT—Like ancient desert caravans, huge herds of camels and sheep and convoys of trucks packed with folded camping tents are slowly making their way out of Kuwait's northern desert to clear the way for war.
Kuwait's government has decreed that by Saturday the northern half of the kingdom must be evacuated by non-resident civilians, from Bedouin herdsmen to the many Kuwaitis who set up camp there during the winter and spring.
Bordering Iraq, the cleared areas are expected to be filled in by U.S., British and Australian troops building up for a possible attack to topple President Saddam Hussein and destroy any weapons of mass destruction.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz has repeatedly warned that his armed forces would not rule out a pre-emptive strike on Kuwait if it agreed to be used as a springboard for a coalition invasion of Iraq.
So the exodus has begun as herders head south and Kuwaitis strike camp and call an early end to the season for their beloved "hayam al bar," or desert camping, leaving only the square footprints of their tents on the sand.
Many say they don't mind the evacuation order, never forgetting and never forgiving Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and a murderous occupation ended by the U.S.-led counteroffensive during the Gulf War in 1991.
"We really hate Saddam. No exile. I want him finished," said Abdullah Latibi, 40, a government employee whose brother is among the more than 600 POWs still missing since 1991.
"That," Latibi said as he and a neighbor picked up their camp, "is more important than our pleasure in the desert."
And pleasure it is, with the word "camping" not doing justice to the elaborate comforts that the oil-rich Kuwaitis take to the desert during what passes here for the rainy season, which begins on Nov. 1.
The campsite 40 miles north of Kuwait City that Mohamad al Shlash has shared with 14 neighbors and co-workers since 1992 has a cement-floored cookhouse, three Bangladeshi servants and 10 white canvas tents.
Nine are for sleeping, with five metal beds in each, and a larger one reserved for eating and evening gatherings has hand-made carpets, camel saddles for backrests and a color TV hooked up to the satellite dish out back.
A traditional Bedouin black goat's hair tent is set aside for breakfast and prayers, in front of a fire pit where the servants have been taught to make Arab coffee in brass pots.
Two stalls with flush toilets stand downwind, a row of wash basins is hooked up to a 3,000-gallon water tank, and there are pens for chickens, ducks, and blue pigeons worth $1,500 each because of their unusual ability to hover in flight.
Fluorescent lights powered by two generators illuminate the camp at night, and during school vacations the families bring four-wheeled motorcycles so the children can joyride around the desert.
"Luxury? No sir," said Al Shlash, a senior government employee who studied public administration at Tampa University in 1980. "This is only a two-star camp. You should see the five-star camps!"
Desert camping is an ancient pastime for Kuwaitis, descendants of merchants from the trading port of Kuwait and nomadic Bedouins who grazed their camels and sheep on the green stubble of grass the rains bring to the desert.
But most people in this super-rich and well-developed nation today never mention a return to their roots when they talk about the fascination with the desert that lures them out here every camping season.
"There's no routine. No office work. It's a change from the city," said Fahad al Thaher, 40, a high school deputy principal who shared Latibi's camp for the past two years with about 40 relatives and neighbors.
"You can see as far as you want to see from here," said al Shlash, whose camp sits on a ridge overlooking Kuwait Bay and the pointy communications towers of Kuwait City farther south.
Some of the camps are for men only, some are used only on weekends and others only for school vacations. But the tents usually stay up throughout the season, officially Nov. 1 to March 30.
"We come out just to eat and relax for a day sometimes," said al Shlash. "We talk politics and the sports and all the usual things. We drink coffee and tea and maybe roast a lamb, that's all."
"We are not happy about having to pack up and leave four weeks before we planned, but what can you do. It's a military thing," he added. "It's all for the best, Inshallah"—Arabic for "If Allah wills it."
He's leaving the doors to the cookhouse and bathrooms unlocked, he said, because he doesn't want the arriving soldiers to have to kick down the doors to make sure they are empty.
"We're coming back next year," he said, "and we don't want any damage."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):