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In the Middle East, cities, businesses, families get ready for war

In Israel, they're buying plane tickets out of the country or booking their families into remote kibbutzim. In Iran, they're preparing campsites for what could be a million Iraqi refugees. In Kuwait, even as tens of thousands of U.S. and British soldiers arrive, they've closed American schools.

It is a nervous and dangerous time, to say the least, all across the Middle East.

Just as militaries mobilize, so do aid organizations, cities and villages. So do neighborhoods, families and private citizens. They try to prepare, as best they can. One family tapes up its windows and doors, while another prepares to flee. Someone packs a Bible to be carried out in case of evacuation. Someone else packs a Koran.

Amid the frantic preparations, sometimes fear breaks out. But so does courage, and so does resolve. Here are some glimpses of that fear and that resolve, in a country-by-country review of pre-war preparations around the region:

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KUWAIT:

"Our businesses are here, our lives are here. Where else can we go?" said Tariq Saleem, a Pakistani man who runs a computer shop in Kuwait City. "The only thing we are worried about is our families. Should they stay here, or should we send them away? They want to stay."

Westerners rarely encounter overt hostility in Kuwait, where support for American military action and memories of the U.S.-led liberation 12 years ago run strong.

But when a Kuwaiti man shot and killed a U.S. military contractor and seriously wounded another on Jan. 21, it was the third shooting of Americans here since October.

The latest attack—which occurred on a highway near Camp Doha, the main U.S. military installation—and the threat of further terrorist violence have prompted U.S. officials in Kuwait to authorize voluntary departures for non-essential embassy personnel and dependents. The State Department also encouraged the 8,000 Americans living in Kuwait to consider leaving.

Kuwaiti security forces have ramped up their presence, stationing armored vehicles and troops with automatic weapons at a number of checkpoints around Kuwait City and on roads leading into the capital.

The American School of Kuwait and the American International School plan to remain closed until March 22 because of the threat of war.

Meanwhile, U.S. ground forces in Kuwait currently number about 100,000, according to U.S. military officials. Some 20,000 troops from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and 60,000 Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force are now combat ready or in the final stages of deployment.

An additional 37,000 troops with the Army's 4th Infantry Division are en route. But it is unclear whether these troops will deploy to Kuwait or Turkey, which wants tens of billions in aid in exchange for allowing U.S. forces to open a second front. Cargo ships carrying helicopters and other equipment for 17,000 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division left Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 14 for the region.

Additional Patriot missile batteries have recently been installed in northern Kuwait to protect U.S. troops and the country's capital from missile attacks.

Because of the increasing size of the buildup, the Kuwaiti Defense Ministry has sealed off most of the northern and western areas of the country. The zone, off-limits to anyone without a special permit, allows U.S. and allied forces to deploy their soldiers and carry out maneuvers with greater secrecy.

A British military spokesman said Wednesday that Britain has deployed about half of the 30,000 soldiers and Royal Marines that are expected to take part in any military action. More than 100 aircraft and 7,000 airmen are in various stages of deployment. Overall more than 40,000 British soldiers, sailors and Marines have been committed, the United Kingdom's largest deployment since the 1982 Falklands War.

The British troops join a small contingent of special forces and F-16 fighters that Australia has promised to the allied effort. The Australians have set up headquarters at Camp Doha, but it is unclear how many troops are now in the country.

More than 320 Czech and about three dozen German soldiers are also working alongside U.S. troops to help Kuwaiti authorities prepare for the possibility of chemical or biological attacks.

The Persian Gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have also pledged to send a token force of about 3,000 soldiers to defend Kuwait.

Kuwait is home to about 1.2 million foreign workers and their families, mainly from other Muslim countries, the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines. Several of these countries have announced plans to evacuate their citizens if war breaks out.

(Knight Ridder military correspondent Drew Brown in Kuwait.)

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ISRAEL:

Defense minister Shaul Mofaz and the Israeli security establishment believe it's not likely that Saddam Hussein will launch missiles at Israel. More troubling, they say, is the threat against Jewish targets outside Israel.

Still, thousands of Israelis have been buying plane tickets out of the country, tickets they say they'll use if war breaks out. Tour agencies have booked hundreds of hotel rooms for their Israeli clients in nearby European enclaves like Cyprus. And Israel-based airlines said they will airlift the masses if foreign carriers suspend their flights, as they did during the 1991 Gulf war.

Many citizens in Tel Aviv are booking hotel or kibbutz rooms in other parts of the country. The coastal city and its surrounding region took hits from 39 Iraqi Scuds in 1991.

David Schwartz, a father of four from Ra'anana, has made reservations for his family at his brother-in-law's kibbutz north of Eilat.

"It's not so much because it's dangerous but because it's a pain in the neck to put the kids into gas masks and into the (bomb) shelter," said Schwartz, 40, formerly of Holmdel, N.J.

His family's shelter, a 9-by-12-foot room, is common to most Israeli homes.

"Most people I know seem to agree the big issue is how to keep their kids from being unhappy, as opposed to keeping safe. We plan to pitch the trip as a vacation to our kids."

In Eilat, a tourist hot spot on the Red Sea, there's likely to be a run on the city's 11,000 hotel rooms, said Rina Maor, director of tourism for Eilat and the Negev Desert region. During the last war, she said, about 20,000 people came to Eilat from the Tel Aviv area.

The city has opened an emergency center, conducted evacuation drills and checked the hotels' supplies of gas masks available for guests. Many hotels also are setting up sealed rooms.

(Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Israel.)

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JORDAN:

In southern Jordan, a weathered old Bedouin woman waved from atop the red-rock cliff where she was watching over her small flock of goats.

"I heard something about a war," she shouted down to a passer-by. "Who's fighting?"

That sort of happy ignorance—or sublime oblivion—is not a luxury available to many others in Jordan these days. With Israel to its west and Iraq to the east, Jordan sits at the very eye of the Middle Eastern storm. It's a location that its king has not-jokingly described as being "between Iraq and a hard place."

The late King Hussein sided with Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war, but his son and heir, King Abdullah II, has reaffirmed his own Westward-ho foreign policy by allowing the United States to use Jordanian airspace and, probably, some of its air bases.

In exchange, Jordan is to receive increased American economic aid and military assistance, three new Patriot missile batteries and the assurance of backup oil supplies (most likely from Saudi Arabia) if the Iraqi spigot is turned off or blown up. Jordan receives 100 percent of its oil from Iraq—more than half of it for free, the rest at a huge discount—as repayment for old Iraqi debts.

But Abdullah is hardly a charter member of the coalition of the willing. He has pressed the Bush administration to seek a political fix in Iraq and refused to allow U.S. troops to attack Iraq from Jordanian soil.

He has also firmly rejected the use of Jordanian troops in any military operation against Baghdad. The king, after all, has some combustible domestic politics to consider: His country's population of 5 million is about 60 percent Palestinian, and their sentiments lie wholly with Iraq.

In the first Gulf war, one million Iraqi refugees poured into Jordan, and a good many of them stayed. That influx has been an enormous drag on the economy, and Jordanian officials aren't about to let it happen again. There are no refugee facilities being prepared on the Jordanian side of the Iraqi border, and King Abdullah, a former Special Forces commander, has said he will deploy his troops to seal the border if war breaks out.

A new Arab League study estimates that even a short war in Iraq will cost the Jordanian economy some $900 million. Meanwhile, even the rumblings of war have reduced Jordanian tourism virtually to zero. On most days, for example, one can wander the magnificent and storied canyons of Petra and not see half a dozen foreign tourists.

In the capital Amman, where there have been only a few minor anti-war demonstrations, a mood of anti-Americanism is clearly on the rise. Most Jordanians, however, are usually careful to distinguish between individual Americans, who are well-liked, and the Bush administration's policies, which are much-hated.

The U.S. Embassy in Amman warned American citizens to be aware of an increasing possibility of terrorist activity in Jordan. Non-essential embassy people and all dependents have been allowed to leave.

(Mark McDonald in Jordan.)

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IRAN:

Iranians are more worried about the influx of refugees than about being attacked by Iraq—surprising, perhaps, given the two countries' bloody eight-year war and Iran's experience with Saddam Hussein's arsenal of chemical weapons. Thousands of Iranian soldiers still languish in hospitals because of chemical wounds that have not healed in 15 years.

Iran's experience with refugees is more recent. Still reeling from the economic drain of the 2.5 million Afghans who fled to Iran during the last American war in the region, Iranian leaders are now wondering how they will manage the half-million Iraqi refugees who could hit their western border if the United States attacks Iraq.

Before that, in the 1991 Gulf war, at least 1 million Arab and Kurdish Iraqis fled to Iran.

The Islamic Republic has designated at least 10 campsites for Iraqi refugees this time, with most of the camps right along the 911-mile border rather than farther inside Iran. Kermanshah province, which expects the largest numbers of refugees, has begun installing electricity and toilets in its five camps. Tents will not go up until the refugees actually arrive.

During Friday prayers, clerics tried to assure people in the border town of Qasr-e-Shirin that authorities had things under control. But the residents were unconvinced.

"We're afraid, of course, but what can we do?" said Afsaneh Bouarooh, 22, an unemployed high school graduate who lives with her mother in a tiny basement apartment. Their farm town was wiped out by Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq war. "Prices for food, for everything, are going to double."

Sixty miles north, in the Iranian Kurdish hamlet of Nosood, people seem less worried, although residents still suffer from ailments they attribute to an Iraqi mustard-gas attack on nearby Halabja.

During that attack, in 1988, Nosood residents fled to the regional capital of Paveh, 25 miles to the southeast.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, farmers and merchants in the mountaintop village of 2,500 played dominoes in the lone coffee shop.

"No, we don't think an attack by Iraq is going to happen," said Amin Nouri, 50, a gardener who said his still-ulcerated hands were damaged when he helped some victims of the Halabja attack 15 years ago. "And even if (an attack) does happen, I'm staying."

(Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Iran.)

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TURKEY:

The ancient city of Diyarbakir, located in eastern Turkey, is smack-dab in the middle of harm's way.

The predominantly Kurdish city is home to a large and modern Turkish air base bristling with F-16 fighter-bombers and various American-made attack helicopters—weaponry almost certain to be used against Iraq in the event of war. The base is also populated with legions of U.S. trainers and technicians, another reason it could be a prime target for an Iraqi retaliation with Scuds.

This helps explain why Diyarbakir's city fathers have recently been holding grave-digging drills. They say they can prepare, if pressed, 100 fresh graves per day.

The government has not permitted the deployment of coalition forces in Turkey. These forces would form a front that would move southward into Iraq, while the bulk of coalition forces would drive northward from Kuwait.

Polls show more than 80 percent of the public opposed to a war, and there have been large and regular anti-war demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul. It has also rankled the public that Turkey, a longtime U.S. ally and the only NATO member bordering Iraq, had such a difficult time getting a pledge of military backup from the alliance.

Further, many Turks blame the state of their woeful economy on the financial fallout from the 1991 Gulf war. That conflict cost them billions, and the country's newly elected parliament—dominated by a party with populist and Islamist roots—wanted some hard assurances from Washington about future aid and reimbursements.

Not far from Diyarbakir, in the truck-stop town of Silopi, at the Turkish-Iraqi border, a tent city for possible Iraqi refugees has been built beside the Tigris River. The Turkish Red Crescent Society expects some 300,000 refugees will try to cross the rugged mountains and seek refuge in Turkey if a war breaks out. In the Gulf war, a half million refugees came across.

But observers say the new tent city will most likely be used for aid workers and military troops en route to action inside Iraq. The Turkish military has already sent soldiers into northern Iraq to prepare to turn back another expected wave of refugees.

(Mark McDonald in Turkey.)

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QATAR:

For the most part, life seems normal on this oil- and gas-rich peninsula, where new glass towers overlook the Persian Gulf. U.S. companies in joint oil ventures here say there's no talk of evacuations. A winter carnival and fashion shows have been well-attended, and Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova recently played tennis here.

But the American Embassy in Doha recently urged its non-emergency personnel and diplomats' families to consider voluntary evacuations. A State Department warning also advised against travel to Qatar and reminded Americans of "the potential for further terrorist actions against U.S. citizens abroad, specifically in the Middle East."

In the Gulf war a dozen years ago, a Scud missile landed 12 miles north of Doha, and scattered food shortages were reported.

"We kept something for the black days, and we will again," said Muhammad al-Musfir, a political scientist at Qatar University. "This war will be wider, and it will be harsher, and it will stretch through the whole region. Everybody is worried."

There have been emergency drills at a satellite campus of Cornell University and at the American School of Doha, where most Americans send their children. The school has added barricades near its fence, Qatari police officers patrol the perimeter, and security guards are roaming the halls.

Mary Anne Murphy, 56, and her husband have lived in the Middle East for many years; in the `70s, a leftist group seized their apartment during Lebanon's civil war. But this, she said, feels different: "It feels like there's more potential for anti-American retaliation."

Murphy, who considers home Seattle and Ithaca, N.Y., is not planning to evacuate, although she has prepared a mental list of what to pack in a hurry—key phone numbers, family photos, and a Bible.

(Peter Smolowitz.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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