Concern Grows as Departure of U.S. Troops Approaches
KUWAIT CITY (AP) _ As the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops approaches, Kuwaitis are increasingly nervous about their nation’s security with Saddam Hussein still in power.
Disagreements between Persian Gulf states have blocked efforts to fashion a domestic and regional military network. Meanwhile, the 3,700-member 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment is scheduled to begin leaving the emirate Sept. 1.
″You have to remember that Kuwait was traumatized by the Iraqi invasion,″ said Khalifa al-Karafi, a member of the advisory National Council. ″People remain very worried about Saddam.″
After Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, Kuwait’s 20,300-member military crumbled. A border buffer zone is now patrolled by U.N. units and Kuwaiti police, but there are reports of Iraqis crossing the border to salvage or smuggle weapons.
Anxiety peaked last week during the Soviet coup. Banks were besieged by Kuwaitis fearful that Soviet hard-liners backing Saddam would replace Mikhail Gorbachev, who supported the allied forces that ousted Iraq from Kuwait in February.
″We couldn’t keep up with the demand for dollars,″ said a Kuwait City money changer, speaking on condition of anonymity. ″People thought that with Gorbachev gone, the hard-liners would cozy up to Saddam and he would come to Kuwait again.″
On Thursday - the day after Gorbachev regained control of the Kremlin - some members of Kuwait’s advisory council proposed negotiating 10-year military base agreements with the United States and Britain. Both countries rejected the idea, saying they do not intend to maintain ground forces in Kuwait.
Western diplomats and military officials acknowledge Iraq has not given up its long-standing claim to this oil-rich emirate.
But they also believe Kuwait has not taken all steps available to protect itself or reassure the public.
As envisioned by the West, Kuwait is to have a four-tier ″security blanket″ - a strong local army, a backup regional force, U.N. observers on the border, and U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf.
Yet Kuwait’s Defense Ministry has struggled to decide how to rebuild the nation’s 16,000-man army, whose ranks were depleted with the departure of many non-Kuwaiti soldiers.
And attempts to put together a regional security force have failed amid bickering over its size and its cost.
Under a plan drafted in March, the regional force was to have about 100,000 troops, with Egyptian and Syrian soldiers backing up units from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council states of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Now the eight countries are talking about a considerably smaller force that may not have a permanent base, but would be organized on a standby basis.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement it will not consider stationing ground forces in the area.
″But we are ready to look at proposals for joint exercises and temporary deployment of ships and aircraft as ways of underpinning the gulf’s own security arrangements,″ the statement said. The last British ground troops left in July.
A U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said there were no plans for basing U.S. troops permanently in Kuwait.
He said the Pentagon has discussed joint military exercises between Arab ground forces and the U.S. Navy units in the gulf, headed by the aircraft carrier USS Abe Lincoln.
U.S. gulf forces are down to 38,600 from a peak of 540,000 during the war. About 16,100 troops are on ships, and the rest are in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.