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Kuwaitis celebrate liberation from Iraq

KUWAIT CITY—Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis celebrated their liberation from Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition 12 years ago Wednesday, jubilant to be free but sometimes embittered by the devastation caused by that war and afraid of another.

A river of horn-honking luxury convertibles, sedans and flashy SUVs flowed down seaside Arabian Gulf Street, where Iraqi tanks dug in during the Gulf War. Now, it's lined with shopping malls, fast food outlets and boat docks.

But the carnival atmosphere that marked the anniversary of the end of Operation Desert Storm, when more than 700,000 U.S. and allied troops chased Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait, had a bittersweet feel this year.

The government trimmed the official ceremonies under the renewed threat of war, and many Kuwaitis are frustrated that their oil-rich nation of 2.1 million people, which once had the world's highest per capita income, has never fully recovered from the ravages of the occupation and the war.

Kuwait is still a place of opulent wealth, where every foreign luxury store has a branch, luxury hotels regularly host $150,000 wedding parties and the king's 17-year-old grandson drives a Bentley.

"But we have fallen far behind the rest of the Gulf since the war," said Sheikh Saud Al Naser Al Sabah, a member of the royal family who served as ambassador to Washington from 1981 to 1992 and later as oil minister.

Oil production is down from 4 million barrels per day in the 1970s to about 2 million, Sheikh Saud said, the result of government mismanagement and Iraqi troops' setting fire to some 900 oil wells.

The Future Generations Fund, a rainy-day reserve fed by surplus oil income that was conservatively estimated at $100 billion in 1990, stands at a comparatively measly $57 billion 13 years later.

More worrisome to some Kuwaitis, the government seems all but paralyzed, racked by ill health in the royal family and by growing numbers of both orthodox and radical Islamist groups.

Kuwait's Emir, or king, Sheikh Jaber al Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah, suffered a stroke last year and his cousin, Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Saad al Abdallah al Salem al Sabah, reportedly has cancer.

The rise of Islamic orthodoxy has been a shock to many here. A teacher at the American School of Kuwait said yearbooks from the 1980s show many girls in mini-skirts, compared to the ankle-length skirts and headscarves now in fashion.

"Many people thought the Iraqi invasion was a punishment from God, for being too modern and forgetting Islam," said Jaafar Bebahani, a clinical psychologist at the University of Kuwait.

Still, the overwhelming majority of Kuwaitis remain moderates, solidly pro-American and strongly in favor of a U.S. war that would remove the troubling specter of Saddam Hussein from their northern horizon.

While his 13-year-old son squirted cars with shaving cream, Osama al Saad grinned at the frivolity displayed on Liberation Day.

"The first Liberation Day," said the 37-year-old commercial license inspector, "I sang and sang. I sang `Kuwait, Kuwait.'"

"Back then, 100 percent of Kuwait was happy to see the Americans here. Now it's 99 percent," he said. "The American is my safety."


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-KUWAIT