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Kuwait cracks down on Islamic fundamentalists

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—Kuwaiti security forces have begun a crackdown on suspected Islamic militants in an effort to head off terrorist attacks against U.S. and coalition troops as war with Iraq looms.

Police have arrested at least a dozen people since last week. Another 150 have had their passports confiscated and have been placed under stricter monitoring, a Kuwaiti official said.

Those targeted in the sweep include "Kuwaiti-Afghans" who fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan and suspected Arab militants who answered the call for holy war in the Balkans, Chechnya and elsewhere. A number are suspected of having ties to al-Qaida.

"We are controlling all the guys who may be suspect," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "It's a precautionary measure. We feel the country is secure, but if anything bad were to happen, it might create a bad impression to the rest of the world."

The crackdown comes after three Kuwaitis, described by police as suspected al-Qaida terrorists, were arrested last week on charges of planning to attack U.S. and British troop convoys. More than 125,000 U.S. and British troops are massed in Kuwait, and thousands more are expected.

Liberals in Kuwait welcomed the crackdown, saying the Kuwaiti government has been too lax with Islamic radicals for too long.

"We shouldn't have waited until they killed Americans before we realized we have extremists," said Mohammed al Jasem, the executive editor of Al Watan, an Arabic daily newspaper. "We've had extremists here for a long time."

Since October, Islamic militants have shot six Americans, two of them fatally, in three separate incidents. Police rounded up dozens of suspects after each incident, but most were released later.

Twelve Kuwaiti men pleaded not guilty Saturday to charges of collaborating with two gunmen who shot and killed a U.S. Marine and wounded another during a training exercise on Failaka Island last October.

The crackdown comes amid rising anxiety about public security in the event of war. Interior Minister Sheikh Mohammed Khaled al Sabbah warned last week that Iraqi troops plan to kidnap Kuwaiti police stationed on the border. The interior minister and other officials also have warned of Iraqi plots to assassinate leading Kuwaiti figures and blow up oil facilities and other crucial installations.

The accusations carry some credibility. Kuwaiti police recently have arrested three men accused of being Iraqi spies, including a 40-year-old Kuwaiti soldier who allegedly planned to poison the food of American troops.

In a country where nearly everyone carries a cell phone, the Interior Ministry began sending text messages this week over the nation's mobile network. "The security and safety of the country is your responsibility. Be prepared to protect it," said one issued Sunday.

The threat of terrorism against allied troops and thousands of Westerners living in Kuwait has led to tighter security throughout the capital. Armored vehicles and special Interior Ministry troops armed with automatic weapons have become common.

Security also has been stepped up at hotels that cater to foreigners. Police have installed concrete barriers at the downtown Sheraton, in spots once reserved for Bentleys, Mercedes and Ferraris. Elegantly dressed women arriving for late-night wedding parties pass through metal detectors manned by Kuwaiti soldiers in blue camouflage fatigues.

Thirty minutes south, at the Hilton Hotel and Resort, guests must pass through a formidable array of concrete barricades, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs that comb through every vehicle that comes onto the expansive property, home to dozens of U.S. and British soldiers and hundreds of foreign journalists.

Since the last shooting in January, American military officials have imposed tighter restrictions for U.S. soldiers. Small groups of soldiers in civilian clothes were once a common sight at Kuwait's fancy shopping malls and some restaurants, but are rarely seen now.


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