KUWAIT (AP) _ Along the tidy streets, in cafes and in American-style shopping malls, there's an ugly attitude among Kuwaitis toward the country that almost single-handedly rescued them from Iraq's occupation.

American flags waved by jubilant Kuwaitis in the heady days after the 1991 Persian Gulf War have given way to suggestions that the United States benefits from tension with Iraq in selling its arms. Speculation runs rife that Washington prefers Saddam Hussein in power to make sure Kuwait and its weak neighbors stay firmly in the lap of the United States.

Even the government, however quick to thank Washington for its leadership in the Gulf War, seems a bit uncomfortable, buffeted by growing anger over U.S. support for Israel and Washington's seeming inability to end almost annual confrontations between Iraq and the United Nations.

``The United States frightens us with Saddam to make us buy weapons and to sign contracts with American companies,'' said Nabil al-Khodr, the managing editor of al-Anba, a popular pro-government newspaper. ``But the Kuwaitis are not foolish.''

Kuwait still needs America more than America needs Kuwait, and relations between the allies remain strong.

The talk, however, is surprising in a country that literally owes its existence to the United States, and it speaks volumes of America's diminished standing in the Arab world _ a result of what Arabs consider Washington's excessive and misguided support for Israel.

Resentment simmers beneath the surface, too, at the role in which Kuwaitis find themselves: too weak and too dependent on the United States to oppose American policies with which they disagree.

``It's sensitive in Kuwait to talk loudly and publicly against the United States because people are afraid it might lose its commitment to defend us,'' said Hasan Jowhar, a Kuwaiti legislator. ``But it's very clear that the United States is very biased.''

Kuwait's defense is at the heart of its relations with America.

In the latest crisis with Iraq, the United States has dispatched six F-117 stealth fighters to Kuwait as part of a military buildup this weekend. The United States' intent was to make clear it is prepared to use force even after a Russian initiative defused the three-week crisis.

Days earlier, 1,200 U.S. soldiers began monthlong exercises with forces from Kuwait's 17,000-strong military, which has been promised $12 billion in weapons and equipment by 2003.

In addition, as Kuwait's largest trading partner, the United States exports more than $1 billion a year to the emirate, and Americana is everywhere. Kuwait City is one of the few in the Arab world in which Chevrolets and Buicks compete with Japanese models.

The capital itself recalls a Las Vegas without the glitz and gaudiness _ both are desert boomtowns that spring from the sand with impatience and more than a little attitude. Scant are signs of the 1990 Iraqi invasion and occupation, during which soldiers systematically looted the city, even stealing street lights.

But the memory of that invasion keeps relations strong, Western diplomats said on condition of anonymity. And as long as Saddam stays in power, they expect ties between America and Kuwait to remain firm, despite the problems posed by frustration with U.S. policy toward Israel.

Nevertheless, some signs of tension are evident.

In September, Kuwait decided to buy 155 mm artillery guns from China over the United States and three other countries, a choice that surprised some American officials.

Kuwait also had misgivings about attending a U.S.-sponsored regional economic conference in Doha, Qatar, at which Israel was represented. The government's decision to go without consulting parliament angered lawmakers, but probably was meant to avoid a public debate on Israel and the stalemated peace process.

Even more striking, Kuwait's foreign minister came out against the use of American force against Iraq _ in line with the stance of other Arab states _ although the Cabinet later insisted its views were ``identical'' to those of Washington.

The nagging recurrence of crises with Iraq angers Kuwaitis the most, along with the idea that others gain from their weakness through lucrative arms deals.

``We pay, we pay and we pay, and it's enough,'' said Tahish al-Rashidi, 56, sipping dark, sweet tea at a cafe.

Al-Khodr, the newspaper editor, put it differently, reformulating the theory that Washington keeps Saddam in power.

``It puts a dog in my door,'' he said at a grocery store near an aisle of Cap'n Crunch and Fruity Pebbles cereal. ``He barks when I sleep, he bites when I go outside. What do I do?''

But the crisis has prompted Kuwaitis to reflect on their government, too. Some ask whether they should look inward at a political system that, while liberal by the standards of the Gulf, still remains closed.

``There won't be any change until we ourselves become more democratic,'' said Mufarrej al-Mufarrej, a 52-year-old Kuwaiti at a shopping mall. ``I think America will respect people who are governed by themselves and not by authoritarian regimes.''