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Summit Dragnet, Activist Arrest Deepen Sullen Kuwaiti Mood

December 19, 1991

KUWAIT CITY (AP) _ The price of a black-market liter of Scotch made its annual holiday jump this week, from $105 to $245. But 10 months after the Persian Gulf war, many feel the New Year will bring little to celebrate.

On the positive side, the oil fires and the omnipresent greasy atmosphere they brought are gone. City water may run brown and many phones are combined as party lines, but the utilities are back.

Where wrecked cars and barbed wire once marred the view, Asian sweepers now whisk gum wrappers off new lawns.

Stores are crammed with everything from Swedish leather couches to plastic Santas. Shoppers are oozing cash, the government has provided full back pay and forgiven consumer loans.

A man walked into the Behbehani General Motors showroom recently and bought four cars - one for himself, one for his wife, one for weekends and one in case any of the others breaks down.

″It’s funny how people are just throwing money away,″ said dealer Yousef Behbehani.

But the consumption does not alleviate a sullen mood pervading Kuwait 10 months after the gulf war.

The government has canceled all official New Year’s festivities due to the continued detention of over 1,000 Kuwaitis in Iraq. That spread to the public, which is keeping weddings and other parties low-key.

Crime is up 25 percent. At nightly diwanniyas, discussions in private homes on issues of the day, security and defense are constant topics. Backyard tents have replaced camping trips to the mine-infested desert.

Ultimately there’s the unrealized promise of a ″new,″ more democratic Kuwait nourished during the occupation.

Kuwait’s ruling emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah set elections for October 1992 and earlier this month the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum was founded as the first open political party.

But women still can’t vote and political oppression is far from over.

Seeking to foster democracy in the postwar gulf, the University Graduates Association organized a seminar.

Professor Abdel Latif al-Mahmoud of Bahrain University made a speech objecting to the lack of democracy, to the government filling its ranks with unqualified princes.

He was arrested at Bahrain airport on Dec. 14 and may face subversion charges and his speech became an instant fax machine best-seller.

But the arrest has Kuwaiti academics worried that the gulf war honeymoon for political prisoners is over.

″We felt after the gulf war things should open up a little bit and people should be able to discuss things. It is obvious that nothing is happening and nobody learned,″ said Abdullah Tawil, president of the alumni group.

Kuwait’s jails are brimming this week ahead of the Dec. 23-25 gulf summit, the first by regional rulers since the war ended.

Roadblocks sprang up Saturday, causing two-hour traffic jams. Hundreds caught without passports or a security I.D. were jailed unless their families could produce the documents.

Diplomats said the government was especially worried about infiltrators. Since the war, a number of infiltrators from both Iran and Iraq have been caught, apparently trying to organize political groups.

Newspapers were banned from reporting on the checkpoints.

Editors say the government’s lengthy list of taboo topics includes the opposition, deportations, critiques of government ministers and the fight over tangled citizenship laws. They cannot indicate which articles were censored.

″No one knows how this country is being run and we can’t ask question about it in the newspapers,″ said popular columnist Ahmed al-Ruba’i.

Information Minister Badr al-Yacoub says censorship is ″the minimum under the law,″ which mandates censorship for reasons of morality and national security.

Military problems include a failure to recruit new troops and frustration over unfulfilled demands for an investigation into the chaos during the Iraqi invasion. Defense Minister Sheik Ali Al-Sabah has said it will come in time, but critics want a public airing.

The defense pact signed with Washington in September curbed immediate security fears, even though the last U.S. combat troops left Dec. 15.

Christmas is not a holiday for Muslims, but hotels in emirates like Dubai that allow alcohol plan huge New Year parties. Flights from Kuwait are fully booked.

A sense that the real cost of the war has yet to be reckoned hampers uninhibited celebration.

Said editor Mohammed Rumaihi of the government-backed Sawt Al-Kuwait daily; ″The nation is out of the emergency room and now the pain of the operation is starting to bite.″

Update hourly