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Kuwaitis anxious about effects of war

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—The rich Kuwaiti businessman refused to talk on the phone about his donation of $6,000 for gift baskets last Thanksgiving for the U.S. troops here girding for another war with Iraq.

"I have to be careful in the current situation," he said.

That "situation" includes fears of more Islamist terrorism and an economic slump in case of war, plus trouble in the ruling al Sabah family; a gloomy picture eased only by hopes of a postwar boom in business with Iraq.

As the pace of U.S. military deployment to Kuwait increases, the 2.1 million people in this tiny, oil-rich desert emirate have begun to worry about how they and their nation might be affected.

Most Kuwaitis favor war with neighboring Iraq if it means ousting President Saddam Hussein, who invaded their country in 1990 and left it in ruins seven months later under attack by a U.S.-led coalition.

"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the United States," said Jameel al Sultan, director of the Kuwait Free Trade Zone. "So the majority of Kuwaitis support the Americans and want to see Saddam removed and Iraq free."

But they also worry that war not only could bring Iraqi artillery raining down on them but also could sharpen many of the problems facing Kuwait, create new ones and perhaps rattle the entire Arabian peninsula.

"This could lift the ever-present threat of Saddam Hussein, but also destabilize us and the region," said economic consultant Jasem Khalid al Sadoun, a University of Colorado graduate.

Foremost among the fears is increased radicalization of Kuwait's Islamist movement, small but politically influential and growing even before the Iraq crisis began last year.

"First Afghanistan, now Iraq," said Islamist leader Hakem Mutairi. "Thank you for liberating us, thank you. But what do you want next? Iran? A colonial empire in the entire Middle East?"

Mutairi rejects violence, like most Kuwaiti Islamists, but unlike the radicals who have killed one U.S. Marine and an American civilian and wounded three others in three attacks since October.

"Our government officials and those of us who publicly support the Americans are very, very worried that we will be targeted by these hotheads," the businessman who donated money for Thanksgiving baskets said in an interview in his office.

The Kuwait Security Service has identified 40 to 50 radical Islamists who trained in Afghanistan or visited Bosnia or Chechnya, including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and al-Qaida spokesman Suleiman Abu Gaith.

After the attack in October, Kuwait's emir, or ruler, Sheik Jaber al Ahmad al Sabah, ordered a review of school texts for radical Islamist references and cautioned mosque leaders to moderate their sermons.

"Until then the government tended to write off all Islamist opponents as `Iraqi agents,' but now they are acknowledging they have a domestic problem," said a senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

While Islamists are complaining of increasing government repression, several local newspaper editorials have complained there's not enough. Some have demanded more police checkpoints on highways and even martial law.

Fueling the Islamists' growth has been their opposition to a clearly weakening al Sabah family, which has ruled this New Jersey-sized nation since long before its independence from Great Britain in 1961.

Sheik Jaber had a stroke a few years back, and his cousin and designated successor, Prime Minister Sheik Saad al Abdullah al Sabah, has advanced cancer, say journalists close to the royal family. The emir's brother, Foreign Minister Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah, has been effectively running the country. He has a pacemaker and, like the others, is in his mid-70s.

"There is a huge and serious political vacuum, which has created a very incompetent government," said al Sadoun, the economic consultant.

Family frailties contributed to the government's slowness in dealing with a string of corruption scandals in which royally connected businessmen allegedly sold the Kuwaiti military rusty rifles and $12 heads of lettuce.

Succession maneuverings aren't expected to affect Kuwait's support for a U.S. war on Iraq. The government has turned over one-quarter of the country to the American military for bases and training and is providing it with fuel, food, water and other supplies that were worth about $80 million last year.

But the al Sabah family's troubles could hamper the nation's ability to overcome the all but certain economic shock of war, a worldwide slowdown that will cut demand for oil and slash prices.

Kuwait today is riding an economic boom, with prices for its light crude oil at $25 to $26 per barrel, a government budget based on a price of $15 per barrel and four straight years of spectacular growth in its stock market.

War could depress oil prices to $18 to $20 and cost Kuwait even more if Saddam attacks his southern neighbor with conventional or chemical and biological weapons, al Sadoun said.

"There would be a mixture of consequences, because some of them may be positive," he added.

On the plus side, Kuwait would benefit greatly as the point of departure for rebuilding Iraq, which has the world's second-largest oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia, but has been ruined by Saddam's wars with Iran and America and by U.N. sanctions.

With silt and war wreckage blocking its only direct access to the Persian Gulf—the Shatt al Arab waterway, formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—much of Iraq's imports will have to come through Kuwaiti ports.

Kuwaiti bankers and oil-equipment, construction and communications companies expect to take advantage of their nation's historical ties to Iraq, especially the southern city of Basra, to sign fat contracts.

These prospects delight businessmen such as al Sultan, the Kuwait Free Trade Zone director, whose family used to move each summer to its house and date palm plantation in Basra to escape Kuwait's withering heat.

"Our priority," he said, "will be nothing less than the reconstruction of southern Iraq."


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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030128 Kuwait facts.