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Kuwaitis Resent Government Inaction

Months of occupation leave them more critical of ruling Sabah family

TWO weeks after liberation, the streets of Kuwait City still lie littered with spent bullets, burned-out Iraqi trucks, and looted cars. On the surface, little has been done even to begin the cleanup. Behind the scenes though, American and British engineers work overtime to turn on the water, power, and telephones. Nobody seems to be able to say when the public services will return and even government ministers give contradictory statements.

At the same time, government ministries are barely visible. Many operate out of single hotel rooms, with cardboard notices indicating which room houses which ministry. Others have begun work in buildings scattered around the city, leading diplomats to say they cannot find the government.

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The government's invisibility and growing public resentment over the lack of water and power has brought relations between the Kuwaiti government and its people to a new low.

In the suburbs, Leila Ibrahim, a Kuwaiti housewife, stood waiting for the first water truck to arrive: ``They said everything was ready, waiting at the border. They've had seven months to prepare. All we have from them is promises. They have promised us water, power, food, and democracy. All we've had is one shipment of rotten bread.''

Much of the resentment appears to focus on the ruling al-Sabah family. ``The crown prince has got everything, even hot water,'' she added angrily. The Sabahs, Leila said, had even been allowed to bring their children back, whereas ordinary Kuwaitis were still being prevented from returning.

Government officials can only counsel patience and say that although the damage was not as bad as expected, much of it was to the infrastructure and cannot be seen. Planning Minister Suleiman Mutawa says the sabotage had been carefully planned by the Iraqis.

``The Iraqis went to areas where it really hurt, like the water and power. They wanted to provoke this reaction, this agitation,'' says Mr. Mutawa.

The tactic appears to be working. Political life looks set to resume shortly with or without martial law and the 400,000 exiles.

The Kuwaiti opposition in the country say they are planning to hold a conference in Kuwait to press their demands for democracy. The conference will bring together Islamic, liberal democratic, and nationalist groups and will replace a conference previously scheduled to be held in London. Opposition sources said they want to maintain the pressure both externally and internally for democracy.

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News of the opposition's plans comes just one day after United States Secretary of State James Baker III secured a public promise from Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir, the Kuwaiti emir, that democracy would be resumed in the country. After a meeting with Mr. Baker in Taif, Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Jabir added that voting rights for women would also be considered.

Western diplomats are convinced that the Kuwaiti government will stick to its promises.

``The only skirmishes which are going on are in the margins, about who will be able to vote,'' says a senior Western official in Kuwait.

Nevertheless, Kuwaitis have emerged from seven months of Iraqi occupation toughened, emboldened, and more resourceful. They are a lot more critical of their ruling family, the Sabahs.

During that period, Kuwaitis were to be found doing jobs, such as collecting the garbage and distributing food, which they would never have dreamed of doing before. Politicians say that there is ``a new spirit'' in the country.

``They are ready to do anything now, any job - these are the sons of Indian nannies, the generation which has been spoiled since the '60s,'' says Abdullah Nibarri, a leading politician. ``The question is whether it will last.''

The former volunteers from the occupation days are, embarrassingly for some government ministries, still highly visible and active. Committees operating at the local coop stores and public utilities express resentment about those coming in from their comfortable exile and telling them what to do. In some government sectors, there are rival competing teams of personnel, each with their own ideas on rehabilitation.

The ``insiders'' - those who stayed - even look different from the exile Kuwaitis. Many sport jeans, T-shirts, baseball caps, and sneakers. Before the crisis, the dishdasha or long white robe was de rigueur, a symbol of dignity, privilege, and national identity. Now many say they have abandoned the dishdasha in favor of more relaxing Western clothes.

Many of the young Kuwaitis who remained behind talk of constitutional democracy such as exists in Britain. ``It's a Western revolution now,'' says Adnan, a former student, now a volunteer at a government ministry. ``All those Eastern ideas of leftism have gone, so has Arab nationalism, now its time for Western democracy.''

Another major change is that many Kuwaitis are armed. Officially, the government is committed to disarming civilians who gained weapons during their activities as members of the resistance. Western diplomats say there is little chance of collecting weapons before a political agreement is reached between the government and the opposition.

``The Iraqis couldn't disarm us. How can the Sabah?'' asks Abdu Rahman, a Kuwaiti journalist. ``My Kalashnikov is part of my belongings now. The Sabah left us defenseless. Anyway, I earned it.''

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