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Kuwaitis breathe sigh of relief

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—As U.S. tanks rumble toward a showdown in Baghdad and British commandos pacify southern Iraq with cold steel and fresh water, there is a tangible change in atmosphere in the Kuwaiti capital.

Shops are open. School children are returning to school. And the stock market is back in business.

For the first time since the war began, missile alarms did not blare in the embattled emirate for 36 hours, from Wednesday morning through Thursday evening, producing a distinct sense of relief.

On Thursday evening 2,000 people, most of them young, turned out for a pro-war rally in the heart of downtown, which would have been unthinkable just days ago.

"We feel like the more troops move north, Saddam is less of a threat to Kuwait," said Baida Al Ayyar, 25, a photographer educated in the United States.

Diplomats, however, warn that the relative calm may carry a false sense of safety.

"The warning has not changed. If you're here, you should get out," said British embassy spokesman Mark Elam. "There is no guarantee there won't be another missile strike. And the threat of terrorism is real and it still exists."

But even military officials seem more confident.

The arrival of the 4th Infantry Division on Tuesday and the renewed advance on Baghdad has eased tension that was palpable just three days ago.

"It looks like we're really getting it together up north," a U.S. military official said. "There's a little bit of a load off, thank God."

Journalists, many of whom had retreated south of the border to Kuwait after the death of four journalists in Iraq early in the war, are again thinking about moving "in country."

"The story has moved north," said Richard Leiby of The Washington Post. "At least until the next Silkworm or Seersucker missile hits."

Residents here have been on edge for months.

The build-up of coalition troops brought threats from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and from Muslim extremists. The advent of war saw dozens of missile warnings—as many as 10 a day—as well as missile strikes in the northern desert and a near-miss in Kuwait City at the downtown Souk Sharq shopping center.

Now, coalition troops have cleared the Al Faw peninsula of missile-launch sites, Patriot missile batteries ringing the city have shot down most of the Iraqi missiles sent this way, and the focus has shifted to the Battle of Baghdad.

"Everything is getting back to normal," said Sarah Al Deyyain, who works in the Kuwait Ministry of Information. "There are more people on the streets. Everyone is just more relaxed."


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