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Extremism May Roil US-Kuwait Relationship

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Extremism may roil U.S.-Kuwait relationship

By Chip Reid

NBC NEWS

KUWAIT CITY, Oct. 18 — At a sprawling, modern shopping complex, teenage “mall rats” congregate at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King. Outside on a plaza, the teens skate past McDonald’s. Nearby, children romp in an enclosed “Play Land” while their parents take a break at Starbucks after loading up on European designer fashions. San Francisco? Boston? Kansas City? Try Kuwait City.

OF COURSE, there is a dead giveaway here in this oil-rich Persian Gulf state: Many of the men strolling the mall with their families wear long white robes known as “dishdashas.” And while many girls and young women wear Western-style clothes and gobs of makeup, some slightly older women wear full-length black “abbaya” robes and scarves.

A few women cover themselves almost completely, nothing visible but their eyes.

This combination of traditional and Western influence is one of the most striking features of Kuwait. When asked about their American ways, Kuwaitis tend to respond not with embarrassment but with pride.

In fact, nearly 12 years after U.S. troops liberated Kuwait from Iraq, the vast majority of Kuwaitis remain deeply grateful to the United States.

“We will never forget the Americans for what they did,” said Ahmad al-Arshani, who wears Western clothes and speaks in slightly broken English.

“Especially the American soldiers, the martyrs, who died so that Kuwait could be free. We are very grateful,” he said with no small amount of emotion.

NOT ALL POSITIVE

But it has recently become evident that not all Kuwaitis feel so positively about their “invited friends.”

For example, on Thursday, a 17-year-old male was arrested near a residential high-rise where U.S. troops live with 10 gasoline bombs in the trunk of his car.

Earlier, this month, 20-year-old Cpl. Antonio Sledd of the U.S. Marine Corps — one of the estimated 10,000 U.S. troops here — was shot to death by two home-grown Kuwaiti terrorists who had trained at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan.

The funeral for the two assailants, who were killed by U.S. Marines immediately after the attack, turned into an angry anti-American protest.

Subsequently, the police arrested 15 friends and family members of the two assailants, who police said had been planning five other attacks on American or Western targets.

Finally, a leaflet was circulated recently to men’s social gatherings (called “diwanias”) from a new group identifying itself as the “Brigade of the Call” urging the youth of Kuwait to prepare for “jihad,” or holy struggle.

SHOCK ON THE STREETS

On the street, or at least at the mall, Kuwaitis are shocked by these events.

Most believe the attack was an aberration, not a sign of things to come.

“Absolutely not in Kuwait. It cannot happen again. I’m sure, 100 percent sure,” al-Arshani insisted, vigorously shaking his head.

Another shopper at the Kuwait City mall, Abdullah al-Awadi, said he too loved the United States.

He insisted that nearly all Kuwaitis feel the same way. But he conceded that there is a small fundamentalist element, centered in rural areas, who feel very different.

Most are too young to appreciate what the United States did for Kuwait more than a decade ago, al-Awadi said. He called them “crazy” and said they’ve been brainwashed by the likes of Osama bin Laden.

But he denied these potential terrorists would strike again in Kuwait.

“There are Kuwaiti police, like the CIA,” he said. “They watch these people. Kuwait is a small country. Everyone knows everyone else and what they are doing.” The security forces, he said, will arrest any cells of al-Qaida sympathizers before they can act again.

A WAKE-UP CALL

But Professor Shafeeq Gharba, director of the Center for Strategic and Future Studies at Kuwait University, said Kuwait’s extremists, or “puritanicals,” though small in number, pose a real danger.

He said recent events, especially the attack on U.S. Marines, are a wake-up call for Kuwaitis who have ignored the growth of fundamentalism.

“We in Kuwait do have a challenge. The ideology of extremism, whether it’s 1, or 2 or 5 percent of the population, is an ideology that we need to confront.”

But as disturbing as the recent instances of home-grown terrorism are, most here seem far more disturbed by the threat from next-door — Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

In the past few weeks the government has begun stocking Kuwait’s bomb shelters with sleeping bags, food and battery-powered lamps. Oil refineries are holding evacuation drills, complete with deployment of gas masks. And the government has ordered 2 million gas masks for the general population.

Lana Neville of Green Bay, Wis., is a 20-something computer teacher at the Kuwait American School. She said she hasn’t really worried about terrorism from Kuwaitis.

“You can’t wander around worrying the whole time. You’d spend all your time doing that rather than living.”

But Saddam? Neville’s smile disappears. “We think about that one,” she said. “We worry about it and wonder where we would go.”

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