Kuwait: uneasy victors in a spoiled place WAR IN THE GULF


KUWAIT -- In a high school classroom, an air force colonel shows a group of silent Kuwaitis a grisly collection of Iraqi tools of torture. Laid out on wooden tables are the implements used to burn, choke and mutilate, such as a screwdriver modified for the job of gouging eyes.

Col. Ali al-Fadari, a resistance leader during the Iraqi occupation, then makes a well-practiced speech. "We need to rebuild, and we need to be different from before," he says, expressing his hopes for a Kuwait in the process of being remade. "We hope no country in the future will use such tools."

Elsewhere in the same school, other former resistance members are showing the colonel's hopes to be in vain. They are documenting human rights abuses committed in the name of Kuwait's reborn government. One of the latest incidents involved a security prisoner being tortured by a guard, a case apparently closed when a superior ordered the guard to be given a dose of the same treatment.

"Emotions in this country are very high, and people do things they didn't do before," said Ghanan al-Najar, director of the country's first human rights organization, the Kuwait Association Defend War Victims. "Under the umbrella of cleaning up and purging, anybody could be put in jail, and there are some very sad stories."

Kuwait's rulers, the family named al-Sabah, came home to face their own disturbing circumstances: an oil fortune going up in smoke, plundered palaces and a disgruntled, mistrustful population.

The emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, fled Kuwait as the Iraqis invaded last August and deeply offended many of his countrymen by waiting until two weeks after liberation to return. Since then he has rarely appeared in public. Kuwaitis, while professing affection for him, say they would respect him more if he surrendered his absolute powers and settled for a role as a figurehead.

People wanting a "new" Kuwait are dismayed at seeing the return of the old. Rebuilding and reform are taking place at a frustratingly slow pace and according to no discernible plan. In re-creating itself, the society displays many of its old qualities, plus a streak of vengeance.

Crown Prince Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, prime minister and the emir's cousin, is in charge of the day-to-day running of the government, as he has been since 1978. He is derided as hopelessly indecisive, precisely the wrong quality for the times. He has been reluctant to delegate authority, or when he does, to reach outside a small retinue of loyalists.

"The mentality is unchanged," said Jassin al-Mutawa, editor of the newspaper al-Watan. "Before the invasion, we used to try to explain the desire for change to those in charge, but we discovered it was pointless. Maybe they feel now that they were wrong in the past. But so far, we haven't heard."

One young Kuwaiti lawyer who was active in the resistance against the Iraqis compared support for the royal family before the invasion with support now.

"If for the emir it used to be 10, now it is maybe 6," he said.

The crown prince? The lawyer laughed, "The crown prince is a 3."

Impatient for change

Kuwaitis emerged from the underground impatient for change but poorly organized to press for it. The emir has promised elections in October 1992 for Parliament, a body he disbanded in when it began to show a mind of its own. While opposition figure are already planning to run, there is grumbling that they are as shopworn as the al-Sabahs.

Meanwhile, every few days some disquieting rumor sweeps through: The Iraqis are about to invade again. The Palestinians have created a vengeful underground army. The al-Sabah princes have organized private militias to guarantee the family's hold on power.

Given the uncertainties, some resistance members have chosen keep their weapons and thereby defy government orders.

"People still think guns might be needed," said Mr. Najar, the human rights activist. "They don't know whether against Iraq or against the government."

In the face of such sentiments, the government has shown much of its old prickliness toward criticism. Officials closed down one newspaper after it called for an early reconvening of Parliament. Another had a cautionary visit from the censor, the same person who filled the post before the invasion.

Mr. Najar's experiences on behalf of his human rights group are at least as sobering. So far, the government has refused to grant official recognition to his or any of the other private organizations to emerge since the war. Without official recognition, a group can be ignored by the government-controlled television and radio but is likely to be watched carefully by the security apparatus.

Officials ordered the association to give up its offices, near one of the palaces of the crown prince. He was apparently upset when families of war victims held an outdoor protest about government inaction.

From new, temporary offices in the high school, the association monitors the treatment of prisoners accused of security offenses, including collaboration with Iraq.

There have been some successes. Under pressure, the government backed down from some of its harshest measures. After complaints that evidence against alleged collaborators was scanty and trials implausibly brief, it commuted to life imprisonment the 29 death sentences handed down by special military courts before the end of martial law.

About 3,000 prisoners still face possible deportation, however, a number that could grow if the government continues to challenge the nationality and loyalty of a group of stateless Arabs known as "bedoon," from the Arabic word for "without." Although the bedoon have lived here for years, officials claim that they are Iraqis; some have been deported without trial to Iraq.

In the first weeks after liberation, anyone suspected of having helped the Iraqis was fair game for attack. People were seized and beaten on the streets, in police stations or later by prison guards.

"When you have 20,000, 30,000 people in the streets with guns and all claiming to be resistance, it's hard to maintain control," said Mr. Najar, a political science professor at Kuwait University. "We were afraid it would contaminate the whole legal system. We know many human rights violations took place."

He is one of the few civilians allowed to make regular inspections of one of the prisons. By his account, the security police, after a period of acting without restraint, have resumed following the rule of law.

A rich ghost town

Before the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait had a mania about appearances. Once, when Arab heads of state were due in town, the sandy shoulders of the highway leading to the airport were spray-painted green to give the appearance of grass sprouting in the desert. Even when there were no outsiders to impress, foreign workers swept the streets spotless.

That was the old Kuwait. Because of the war and the oil-field fires, the new Kuwait is stained, smudged, unwashed. When the wind blows from the south, sooty clouds turn Kuwait City gray. There is little traffic, since at least half the prewar population of 2 million has never returned.

What remains is a ghost town, albeit a rich one. While damage from the occupation is less than what many people feared, the once-immaculate city looks tattered. On the waterfront, where Iraq prepared for an allied amphibious attack that never came, palatial homes stand empty with bricked-up windows. Others are burned-out hulks. The fear of mines has been an effective deterrent to looting. At the beaches, the only sunbathers are members of a British mine-clearing team who cleared an area for themselves.

Business is a free-for-all, thanks to the absence of customs duties or effective border controls. What used to be considered smuggling now is ordinary commerce. While legal trade with Iran used to be nil, wooden dhows now sail daily from Iran to unload everything from fish to American cigarettes to new cars. At grocery stores, merchants have restocked with goods brought overland from Saudi Arabia -- at prices often double their prewar levels.

No management

Until a year ago, Kuwait was best known for its indolence. It was where, thanks to the national wealth from oil, foreigners performed virtually all the work and allowed Kuwaitis to live in considerable comfort. Citizens could count on free land for their homes, interest-free mortgages and no taxes. Retirement at age 40 was the norm.

The al-Sabah family indulged Kuwait's citizens, and most of its citizens offered political indulgence in return. The al-Sabahs valued loyalty over competence and allowed corruption to flourish.

Cabinet ministers returning to work are the same figures accused of mismanaging the country before the invasion. In making their plans known, and in giving the public a voice, their record is no better than before the Iraqi invasion.

Residents are left to guess what might be ahead. Plans exist for reopening schools, restoring the banking system and monitoring the health effects from more than 500 oil-well fires ignited during the war and still burning. But the government has failed to provide even the barest details of what it has in mind.

Kuwaitis are drifting back from places of exile. Some promptly leave again, disgusted that programs are still lacking to help them rebuild.

"This government is not a government where people think," said Abdul Aziz al-Sultan, chairman of the Gulf Bank and a powerful opposition voice. "Kuwait is not really being managed at all. There are no plans, no set of objectives, no monitoring.

"We have an excellent chance to avoid old problems. I don't see it happening. All we need are some simple statements so we know where this country is going. Our problem is the leadership."

Officials meanwhile talk of "reorganizing" the population, a code word for the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians.

Before the invasion, Kuwaiti citizens made up only 27 percent of the population. Kuwait's interior minister insists that citizens will account for at least 50 percent of the "new Kuwait," arithmetic requiring foreigners to leave.

Palestinians are the chief target. They are being forced out because some of them collaborated with Iraq. Asians, who are not seen as a political threat, are meanwhile returning in droves to resume work as the country's lowest-paid laborers.

But many things are being allowed to drift.

In the military, officers complain that the commanders who fled in the first hours of the invasion are back in their posts, working just as inefficiently as before. The main change in strategic thinking is an eagerness to depend totally on the United States and blind faith that the United States will respond to any crisis.

How does the general staff pass its time?

"Cigarettes," an army colonel says, not smiling. "Tea."

'Your wonderful president'

A gradual restoration of basic services has probably hastened the general calming down. Electricity, water and telephones are back, although sometimes shakily.

Electrical generating capacity is up to about 80 percent of the prewar level. Repairs have gotten the desalination plants that supply drinking water running at about half of prewar levels.

But the government can't take much of the credit. Most of the progress is due to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, another example of Kuwait's abiding dependence on outside help.

Just as in the old days, Kuwait has supplied money, not expertise. Kuwait has paid the corps $366 million to act as the management company for reconstruction; $62 million more is due by the end of the year. About 200 U.S. Army personnel, commanded by a major general, monitor everything from contract signing to mine clearing to air pollution studies. Officers estimate that they have at least three years of work ahead.

Kuwaitis sound head-over-heels in love with the United States. Almost no one utters the name of the president of the United States without adding at least one laudatory adjective -- "the great" or "your wonderful," as in "your wonderful President Bush."

Everyone confidently expects the love to be reciprocated in the form of a permanent U.S. military presence. Few people take into account that the United States, or Kuwait's prideful rulers, might have reservations.

"Ninety-nine percent of Kuwaitis want protection of a great power," said a senior civil servant, offering an American visitor a drink of whiskey, "and you know who that means."

The whiskey was an authentic Kuwaiti touch. Officially, the country observes the Islamic ban on alcohol. In practice, Kuwaitis pour a whiskey from hidden supplies and make jokes about Islamic countries professing greater piety. Kuwait is where money gave citizens the confidence to flout the rules.

Kuwaitis are counting again on their wealth. Money is bringing back Filipino servants, Sri Lankan drivers, Pakistani construction workers. In conversation, Kuwaitis try out the idea of hiring the U.S. military for defense.

The government meanwhile labors to restore luxury and acquiescence. To show who is welcomed, it has granted every civil servant who is a citizen $1,500 for each member of his family. There also is back pay covering the seven months of occupation, whether a citizen left or stayed and braved conditions.

More comfort is probably on the way. Earlier this month, Kuwait's National Council -- an advisory group appointed in part by the emir -- met for its first public debate since the war and quickly identified a problem needing to solved: the servant shortage.

Without a ready pool of servants, council members said, Kuwaitis accustomed to the luxury of a large household staff would further delay their return. Without Kuwaitis, government offices stay empty and businesses remain closed. Without Kuwaitis, rebuilding stalls.

What to do? Council members suggested cutting the price of visas for household help. To give Kuwaitis still more incentive to come home, members also recommended that the government give each household a $65,000 grant.

Non-citizens who endured the same or greater hardship have received nothing.

It is another disappointment for Kuwaitis looking for signs of new, democratic thinking, or hoping that the government was about to turn over a new leaf in how it treated the country's workers.

"You find a lot of sad people in this country," said Mr. Najar, the political scientist, as if to describe everything that has happened since the liberation. "You find almost nobody happy."

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