Over coffee and cake, Kuwaitis debate war


KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait - It's after midnight, but the dozen men of the Sabah al-Salem neighborhood gathered in a second-floor banquet room have no plans to go home yet. They order more cups of tea and coffee. They light cigarettes. They prop themselves up on plush crimson pillows. They want to talk more about a possible U.S.-led war against their neighbor, Iraq.

A young schoolteacher opposed to war asks how an Iraqi family would feel if U.S. soldiers accidentally killed an innocent son or daughter during an attack.

"That family may want regime change, but they are going to end up hating the United States," he says.

"Why can't the United States just assassinate Saddam?" another man offers. "Why do we need a war now?"

Sitting quietly in the corner, Manei M. al-Hayan, a firefighter, looks increasingly irritated at the conversation of his friends, as if he were listening to a fly buzz in his ear.

Sitting up suddenly, he tells them: "The people of Iraq are praying for war because they are already dead."

"What is one family member?" asks another man. "Is it the price to be paid to get rid of Saddam?"

Twelve years after a U.S.-led force liberated Kuwait from Iraqi invaders, Kuwaitis relish the thought of Saddam Hussein's downfall perhaps more than any other people in the world. Their nation is a major staging area for war, with nearly 100,000 U.S. troops camped in the desert a short drive outside the capital, poised to launch an attack across Iraq's southern border.

But in conversations across Kuwait it becomes clear that support for a new U.S.-led war to overthrow the Hussein regime is not as universal as one might expect.

The Kuwaiti government remains the United States' closest ally in the Persian Gulf region. Many Kuwaitis still speak of the first President George Bush as a hero and America as their friend. They drive large American sedans and SUVs, and wait in long lines to eat at McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Hardee's and other American fast-food chains.

At a central traffic circle in downtown Kuwait City, a giant yellow billboard announces: "Much obliged U.S. and Allies. God Bless You All. From the Kuwaiti people."

But eating American and buying American does not equal support for American policies. As the presence of U.S. soldiers increases, so do the fears of many Kuwaitis about what war would mean for their country, the Iraqi people and their relationship with the United States.

"It's a mixed feeling," says Shamlan Y. al-Essa, a political science professor at Kuwait University. "They want to get rid of Saddam but they don't want to see the Iraqi people hurt."

Or as Ismail al-Shatti, a well-known Islamic leader in Kuwait and anti-war activist, put it: "The Kuwaitis' feelings are with the Arabs, but their swords are with the Americans."

That was the mood at the weekly meeting of this diwaniyah, the name given to a traditional gathering of men held each night in homes, tents and meeting halls throughout Kuwait. In a country where alcohol is banned, a diwaniyah might best be described as Kuwait's version of a neighborhood pub where men can go to unwind and debate the events of the day.

A diwaniyah, literally "little parliament," has few formalities. The hosts ask that you leave your shoes at the door, but not your opinions.

On this night, the gathering includes a gym teacher, a history teacher, a lawyer, journalists, civil servants, a firefighter, oil executives and a member of the Kuwaiti National Guard. Most live in Sabah al-Salem, a mixed neighborhood of palace-like homes and houses of the poor on the outskirts of Kuwait City.

They lounge on long sofas or sit cross-legged on the floor sipping tea and coffee, snacking on sweet cakes, lamb and rice. But above all they talk, debate, joke, argue and share their fears about these uncertain times.

They worry about Hussein launching a chemical attack on their tiny country and wonder whether their government is prepared to provide gas masks to residents.

They express fears not only about a war, but what the Arab world would look like afterward.

"Colin Powell says war will change the whole region for the better," says one, referring to the U.S. secretary of state. "I think the region is going to be more disorganized than it already is."

Others welcome American influence in the region.

"The presence of the United States will benefit everyone. Arabs are like children with weapons. Without the United States here, the Arabs will hurt themselves or hurt their brothers," says another.

"If America controls Iraq, it will also control 70 percent of the world's oil reserves. What is going to happen when Kuwait is not important anymore?" asks Mohammed al-Jassem, editor of the Arabic daily Al-Watan.

Abdullah Araghad, a Kuwaiti Petroleum Corp. employee, sees an Iraq war as part of a plot to overthrow Islam.

"There are three systems in the world: socialism, capitalism and Islam. Socialism is over, and the U.S. sees Islamic ideology as a threat," he says.

Araghad is not alone in his criticism. The most vocal anti-war voices here belong to the country's Islamic fundamentalists who oppose U.S. support for Israel.

The fears of anti-Americanism growing here peaked last month when a Kuwaiti al-Qaida sympathizer shot and killed a U.S. military contractor and wounded his colleague. It was the third attack in as many months against Americans living in Kuwait.

In October, two Kuwaitis, also with suspected links to al-Qaida, opened fired on Marines on a training exercise, killing one and wounding another. In November, a Kuwaiti police officer shot and seriously wounded two U.S. soldiers after stopping their car on a highway. The officer had no link to terrorists, authorities say.

The killings were widely condemned; al-Essa, the political science professor, says Islamic extremists represent "a very small minority" in Kuwait.

"The majority support the government, which is taking a strong stand to back the United States," al-Essa says.

But that support is not unwavering. Late into the night the men of Sabah al-Salem endeavor to understand the United States. The conversation moves in circles. Why does it support Israel? Why is Bush against Muslims? Why can't the United States contain Hussein instead of going to war?

The United States and a possible Iraq war seem to be a riddle, and they puzzle over it until the teapot is empty and it is time to go to bed. There will be more time to debate these questions next week.

But please don't misunderstand us, says al-Hayan before he gets up to leave.

"The majority of us are pro-American because America is so important to our survival."

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