Kuwaitis Evicted from Half of their Country as Troops Arrive
Now the Kuwaiti government has drawn a line from the south-western corner to the coast, slicing Kuwait in half, declaring the northern part off limits to its own people and giving Washington and London carte blanche to manoeuvre an armed horde there which, when fully assembled, will comprise about a quarter of a million men and women.
Kuwaitis are evicted from half of their country as troops arrive
Gratitude for their liberation from Iraq in 1991 is mixed with a feeling of resentment that their way of life is being ruined
James Meek in Kuwait
Wednesday March 5, 2003
A month of sales has just finished in Kuwait City shops, but the biggest reduction of the past few weeks has been in the size of the country: Kuwait, 50 per cent off.
As it was, the country was slightly smaller than Wales. Now the government has drawn a line from the south-western corner to the coast, slicing Kuwait in half, declaring the northern part off limits to its own people and giving Washington and London carte blanche to manoeuvre an armed horde there which, when fully assembled, will comprise about a quarter of a million men and women.
The population of Kuwait is 2.3 million, so the arrival of foreign troops signifies a roughly 10 per cent increase in the number of people in its territory. To put this in perspective, it is the equivalent of 5.6 million foreign soldiers pitching their tents in Britain.
There have been no demonstrations against the bisection of Kuwait. Most Kuwaitis still remember with gratitude their liberation from Iraq by the US and its allies in 1991.
But to the trickle of shootings of Americans, the objections of the strongly religious minority to the US military presence, and the hostility of the liberal minority to US policy towards Palestinians, a new, broader note of grumbling has been added. The sealed-off north had no towns or settlements, but it had plenty of Kuwaiti life.
It is not the Kuwaiti way to get angry in front of strangers. But Abu Abdullah, one of thousands of Kuwaiti sheep and camel herders evicted from the north of his country to make way for the American and British army, was very, very annoyed.
His sheep would normally be grazing on the sweet spring grass south of Um Qasr, near the Kuwait-Iraq border. Instead, they are confined to a squalid, crowded lot among hundreds of sheep and camel pens, tents and electricity pylons in the desert south of Kuwait City, eating Australian grass paid for by the bale.
"We always used to graze in the north, because the area is clean and open," he said. "Here it's dirty, and the grass is different, and it's not healthy. Our sheep are getting sick."
In the Friday market in Kuwait City, past the stalls selling bananas on their stalks and sacks of dried lemons, stand the dealers in the prized faqe truffles, which sprout in the northern desert in spring. The faqe look like a cross between potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes; cooked with turmeric and paprika, they taste somewhere between aubergines and mushrooms, with a faint afternote of damp cellar.
Faqe is normally a lucrative sideline for Kuwaiti Bedouin who gather it at this time of year - it retails for about £20 a kilogram. Dealers are having to make do with inferior faqe from Syria and Algeria.
"The Kuwaiti soldiers who are stationed in the desert bring a little, but not the same as before," said Mohammed al-Fadly, a part-time Kuwaiti truffle hunter, leaning on the counter of a faqe stall. "Of course I feel annoyed, but I have to cooperate for the sake of my country."
Even after the troops leave, he said, it would take four years for the desert to recover from the destructive effect on the soil of tank tracks and tyres.
Normally, at this cool time of year, before the summer temperatures soar to 50C-plus (122F), the northern desert would be filled with Kuwaiti families returning to their cultural roots by camping. The coming of the US-British force has disrupted the rhythms of the people, forcing them to strike their elaborate tents and move south, or abandon their holidays altogether and sit at home.
"We had to take our campsite down because of the war," said Hany Marafi, an 18-year-old student from a wealthy Kuwaiti merchant family. "Everyone was disappointed we had to take it down because camping only happens once a year. It's when the whole family comes together."
The six-lane highway through the northern desert from Kuwait City to the Iraqi border, which had been the campers' route to their spring playgrounds, was now suffering under the weight of military traffic, he said.
"That road was brand new. This year, it's being destroyed," Mr Marafi said. But he was not an opponent of the foreign military presence. "Without the help of the US and the English, Kuwait wouldn't be the way it is today. Kuwaitis aren't really complaining deep inside."
Abdul Razzak al-Shayji, a teacher in sharia law at Kuwait University, represents the sizeable devout Islamic minority in the emirate which is complaining and would prefer to see all foreign troops leave and Iraq left alone.
Washington has not made a convincing case for war, he argues, and neither eliminating weapons of mass destruction nor regime change is the real goal of the US.
"Their goal is to change the map," he said. "They want to help Israel, to protect the oil, to chase down Islamist groups, and to change the Islamic world as a whole.
"We were with the war in 1990-91 because the goal was clear, to free Kuwait. Now the goals are less clear. They aren't realistic. The laws in most Arab countries are not so different from those operated by Saddam Hussein. George Bush is talking about introducing democracy to Iraq, but Iraq's been like this for 30 years." Within that minority of Kuwaitis who resent the US presence in words, there is an even smaller minority which displays that resentment through violent deeds. For those who argue that Kuwait could never turn against the US and Britain, there is the troubling example of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where relations between US-British expatriate residents and the Saudi community have soured dramatically in the past 15 years.
Indeed, the Kuwaiti authorities may be trying to conceal the scale of the problem. Last year a Kuwaiti court sentenced a Filipino man to life in prison for shooting dead a Canadian aircraft engineer working for US forces in Kuwait and wound ing his wife, even though she maintained that she had seen a Kuwaiti Islamist, Majid al-Mutairi, pull the trigger.
Since October one soldier and one civilian contractor have been killed and four people injured in a series of attacks on US military personnel in the emirate.
But such violence is not a fair reflection of the views of most Kuwaitis, which are closer to the gentle grumbling of the sheep herder Abu Abdullah than the brutal anger of the Islamists. Like most Kuwaiti citizens, Mr Abdullah gets a salary from the government - in his case, about £2,000 a month - as well as the opportunity for all sorts of other financial benefits, like interest-free mortgages over as much as a century.
None the less, the influx of foreign troops has moved him into new and unpleasant territory. He has had to pay for the transport of his flock south, and their fodder, out of his own pocket. The government has not offered compensation - and is now telling him he has to move again.
"The government says we can't stay here," he said. "Where will we go?"
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