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Kuwaitis jittery over war

| Monday, March 10, 2003

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait -- Swirled in gray-and-black camouflage paint to match the Shuhada neighborhood's cityscape, a Kuwaiti armored car, with machine guns pointed heavenward, guards the bustle of evening shoppers, blaring taxis and frocked women hustling their children back from the mosques.

The normally quiet capital of this Persian Gulf nation now churns uneasily in the spring night as the prospect of war looms across its border.

The wealthier send their wives and children away to safer cities, fearing attacks from Iraqi Scud missiles, a rocket blitz they well recall from when their northern neighbor last invaded in 1990.

Those too poor to leave -- especially those "guest" workers from impoverished provinces in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan -- hunker down and pray for peace.

"You journalists, we are glad you are here," said Hamid Bayim, an Indian clerk in the Safat neighborhood. "It's when you leave we become afraid. That means you are in Iraq, and we are at war."

In a briefing at the edge of Kuwait City, U.S. Marine Lt. Col. George W. Smith, Jr., said the Marine Corps is ready to punch into Iraq with a flurry of blows -- whether from a seaborne invasion, rapid and sustained air strikes, a tank dash across the desert or a "robust" kick from the Marines' elite infantry battalions.

"We have made some pretty cool plans'" Smith said. "But I'm not going to tell you what they are."

Smith, part of the select team of war planners toiling for 18 months on the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's battlefield blueprint, said more than 50,000 Marines would be on hand to fight using hundreds of helicopters, fighters and naval warships moored in the Persian Gulf.

Smith and the other architects of the looming Iraqi war remained tight-lipped on details, saying only that the 1st Marine Division, mostly drawn from Camp Pendleton in California, and an infantry-heavy "Taskforce Tarawa" should see heavy, continuous action if President Bush authorizes a war.

Across the border in Iraq, however, Saddam Hussein's forces on Monday destroyed another six Al Samoud 2 missiles, including three warheads. But that brought little hope to Kuwaitis. They fear

Saddam, despite destroying some missiles to satisfy United Nations inspectors probing his country for weapons of mass destruction, will still lob rockets over the sand and into Kuwaiti neighborhoods teeming with people.

On the streets ringing Kuwait City's souk -- or marketplace -- gas masks are going for $500, and many don't have the necessary filters to make them work. But residents say they recall the nearly 1,100 citizens murdered by Saddam's army in 1991, including 120 premature babies allegedly ripped from hospital incubators.

The "Mad Man of Baghdad," they say, could unleash poisonous gases, diseases or an inferno of bombs on the capital. That's why they find comfort in the soldiers with machine guns outside banks and government buildings. That's why they don't mind the "Scud drills" that push them into basements during the day.

"Some go, but I don't go," said Asrar al-Khat, a middle-aged Kuwaiti strolling past sandbags stacked 4 feet high in Shuhada. "I will stay. I will fight."

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