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Iraqi Tremors Still Rattle Kuwaitis

Six years after Gulf war, oil-rich country clings to US military

From outside, the Kuwait National Museum looks intact, like a normal center of cultural heritage. But inside another unforgotten legacy is on display.

Fires set by Iraqi troops during their 1990 occupation gutted the museum's Al-Sabah wing - once home to one of the world's most important Islamic art collections. The flames melted the metal hand railings and reduced the wing's interior to ash.

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Since the occupation, the museum has been left untouched as a memorial to Iraq's destruction. It illustrates how, six years after US-led troops expelled Iraq from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf war, the shadow of Saddam Hussein still casts a pall over Kuwait.

Across this oil-rich land, such destruction has now been largely restored: Scars of Iraqi tank tracks in the streets have been paved over, and 800 burning oil wells have been extinguished. But Kuwaitis are in many ways still fighting the occupation and are obsessed with the continuing power of Saddam.

The result is an uncompromising stand against Iraq that has put Kuwait at odds with more distant Gulf allies. Despite a $12-billion rearmament program - and strategic US and UN guarantees that Kuwait will never again be overrun - many Kuwaitis seek changes in American and international community policy to break the six-year logjam and oust Saddam.

Kuwait is the front-line defense in America's security policy in the Persian Gulf, but US officials in Washington and the Mideast make clear that a Western military overthrow of Saddam is not their mission.

Underscoring the US commitment to Kuwait, however, is the continuing presence of eight F-117A "Stealth" fighter planes. They were deployed to deter Saddam in September when Iraqi forces advanced north into a UN-declared safe area.

The 5,000 US Army troops deployed in Kuwait in September left last month - but were replaced by a Marine force of 1,800.

Another asset is a "pre-position" force of tanks, artillery, and other equipment for 2,500 soldiers permanently stored here.

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Eyeing Baghdad

But with little prospect that such forces will act to overthrow the Iraqi regime, Kuwaiti intellectuals focus their speculation on Baghdad, searching for clues to what may affect their own future.

The assassination attempt Dec. 12 on Uday, Saddam's son and heir apparent, indicates to many here that the regime is fragile, and that its primary threat is from inside.

Kuwait's Gulf neighbors - especially Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - want Iraq rehabilitated once it complies with UN disarmament resolutions, but for Kuwaitis such a move is unthinkable.

"We can't talk of rehabilitation with Saddam - that's like making peace with Hitler," says Mohammed al-Rumaihi, editor of Kuwait's widely read Al-Arabi magazine.

The US needs a new policy on Iraq, "because the status quo continues to bleed our resources," says Dr. al-Rumaihi. Despite billions spent by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the US in defense of the region, he says, "We are still threatened by invasion or terrorism."

Some Kuwaitis note the "supreme irony" that their country was instrumental, during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, in supporting Saddam against Iran.

Almost daily, there are reasons to remember the occupation:

*The UN agreed Dec. 9 to an oil-for-food deal allowing Iraq limited oil exports to pay for humanitarian aid and war reparations.

*The UN recently made its first award of $610 million to the Kuwait Oil Company for the cost of extinguishing 800 oil wells that Iraqi forces set alight as they retreated before the American-led alliance in February 1991.

Today, hundreds of oil lakes pockmark the desert.

*Only $13.4 million has been paid so far to individual claimants, out of a total $200 billion in claims.

*Kuwaiti lawyers are finishing an extensive war crimes case against Saddam and 115 aides for the brutality of Iraqi forces.

*Iraqi music is banned.

Though Western diplomatic sources say that any alternative to Saddam is welcome, they contend that the policy of containing Iraq is working, albeit slowly, and that the shooting of Uday is an example.

"Containment and pressure are squeezing him ... and it will persist until finally there is a change of regime in Baghdad," says a Western diplomat. "The assassination attempt on Uday illustrates that the inner circle is under significant threat from within," he says. "You can't even make a list of suspects without running out of paper."

A man on the run

Kuwaiti sources describe Saddam as a man on the run, who since the Gulf war has sometimes received the credentials of new ambassadors to Baghdad by video link-up to hide his location. Although such claims can't be verified, the Kuwaitis say that since the attack on Uday, Saddam has gone almost completely underground, sleeping in two or three different villas a night. More than 40 locations - secured and with food brought at mealtimes for four to five people, in case the president should arrive - serve as rotating safe houses.

"This attack on Uday is meant to get at Saddam through Uday. Now Saddam is more dangerous, like a caged animal," says Mohammed al-Qadiri, a businessman and former Kuwaiti official.

"He has his elite [corps of officials around him], and they know that if he goes, they all go."

Mr. al-Qadiri was captured by Iraqi forces during the occupation for his role in the Kuwaiti resistance but let go after three weeks during a release of 1,200 POWs. That experience still troubles him.

His poor treatment at the hands of Iraqis has led him to think there could be a violent backlash by Iraq's citizens when Saddam is finally toppled.

"There will be big bloodshed, because the Iraqis are very tough on their own people," he says.

But Kuwait - dwarfed by Iraq's ominous shadow - has few alternatives to relying on US Gulf strategy.

"Kuwait has no vision of how to deal with Iraq in the future," says al-Qadiri. "There is hate. But how will we deal with 20 million Iraqis when Iraqi songs - even old songs about love - are banned? It's a very sensitive, difficult issue."

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