The Central Intelligence Agency is helping to organize and train Kuwaiti resistance fighters at bases in Saudi Arabia in an effort to harass the estimated 150,000 Iraqi troops now occupying Kuwait, U.S. officials said Thursday.
And, largely or entirely independent of the CIA’s still-embryonic efforts, Kuwaitis still inside the occupied country continue to resist the Iraqi forces with hit-and-run attacks, numerous reports from Kuwait indicate. Resistance fighters reportedly have ambushed Iraqi military convoys and have killed Iraqi sentries posted at key installations.
The goal of the CIA’s operation in Saudi Arabia is to increase the scale and effectiveness of such assaults, sources suggested. On Thursday, the scale of the CIA operation and the number of Kuwaiti guerrillas involved remained unclear.
But officials in Washington indicated that the covert operation is still in an embryonic stage and probably involves a relatively small number of Kuwaiti Bedouins, who are intimately familiar with the desert terrain. Many of them had served in the small Kuwaiti military before the Iraqi invasion.
The information about guerrilla attacks inside occupied Kuwait is supported by videotapes and photographs brought across the border and shown on television in the Persian Gulf states where many refugees have found sanctuary. They show burnt-out Iraqi military vehicles and, in one instance, two armed Kuwaitis standing over the body of an Iraqi soldier.
“The young men, particularly, are very solid, very organized,” said a Kuwaiti with close connections to his country’s embassy in Bahrain.
Arms for the resistance inside Kuwait are apparently not a problem. From the first days of the invasion, refugees have brought out accounts of Iraqi troops selling their weapons for cash or food. Soviet-designed assault rifles are going for the equivalent of $10 to $30, depending on exchange rates.
Some of the reports sound highly exaggerated, among them the widely circulated story that resistance forces bought an Iraqi tank.
Nevertheless, they indicate considerable defiance, particularly in the suburbs of Kuwait city. The business area, the hotel districts and the port are thick with Iraqi military positions, and movement by Kuwaitis there is limited.
But the suburbs to the south provide security for the resistance fighters. The Kuwaiti with embassy connections said Iraqi troops “don’t dare enter the suburbs at night.”
He said he could put no number on Iraqi casualties, but they were “big.” The number of wounded has forced hospitals to turn away Kuwaitis since the first days of the occupation.
“People are organizing themselves,” the Kuwaiti said. “They’re taking over co-ops (supermarkets) in the suburbs and distributing food. The merchants were afraid the Iraqis would take it.”
He estimated that food supplies in the suburbs could last two months, but added: “Things are going from bad to worse.”
In the first days of the occupation, refugees say, the resistance was active throughout the city. Firefights took place in the downtown area. Women led several demonstrations, marching through the streets carrying placards bearing the picture of Sheik Jabar al Ahmed al Sabah, the self-exiled emir.
Now the tactics are “hit-and-run,” the Kuwaiti said. “And some booby-traps.”
The effect among the soldiers of the so-called popular army of Iraqi reservists, some in their mid-teens, has been telling.
“They have no experience, no leadership--they’re just holding arms,” the Kuwaiti said. “They were just told they were going on desert maneuvers, and they’re scared.”
Refugee reports indicate that the Iraqi regulars are maintaining discipline but that the green troops of the popular army have been partially responsible for widespread looting. They are portrayed as ill-trained and open to bribery. The fear in their ranks multiplies the effect on morale of the resistance raids, refugees say.
Concerned that the Iraqis would push into the suburbs in strength, the resistance fighters began a campaign of confusion in strongholds like the community of Bayan. Michelle Mateljan, a 22-year-old from Studio City, Calif., who fled Aug. 14, almost two weeks after the invasion began, said suburban residents removed the street numbers from their houses and sprayed street signs with black paint.
“Everyone was trying to get guns,” she said, even trapped foreigners.
Early reports said the resistance broke into police stations and carried off weapons. Other arms were bought from the Iraqi reservists or taken from slain Iraqis.
“One night,” Mateljan recalled, “there was a big crowd around one of the mosques. I heard they were passing out weapons.”
The telephone system, still working in some areas, provides a network for intelligence reports. Messengers risk interception by Iraqi patrols.
Sikander Zaman, an Indian engineer who fled through Iraq and across the Jordan border, told reporters: “You can’t go out anywhere. I was running from house to house to hide.”
Amer Salem, a Jordanian student who took the same escape route, said: “The day we left (Aug. 24) there was lots of shooting and bazooka fire in the Fahaheel district (on the coast south of the airport). The local Iraqi army commander threatened to shoot anybody who put his head out of a window.”
Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis have found shelter in the gulf states, not only refugees but people who were abroad when the invasion came. Many men interviewed over the past four weeks say they want to return, to join the resistance, but entering the beleaguered sheikdom is as difficult as getting out.
The only evident outside support for the resistance fighters that has surfaced outside Kuwait is a clandestine radio station, This Is Kuwait. Early this week, the station broadcast a communique from a resistance unit calling itself the February 25 Group, after Kuwait’s independence day. The communique pledged that attacks will continue until Kuwait is liberated.
“We pledge to our people that we will burn the land under the feet of Saddam (Hussein, the Iraqi president) and his regime,” it said. “Saddam will not enjoy a single inch of our land.”
The Kuwait foreign minister, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah, has said that the exiled government is in touch with resistance groups and that the Iraqis were taking steps in retribution--"an increasing number of atrocities"--against Kuwaitis because of the resistance. This could not be confirmed.
Williams reported from Manama, Bahrain, and Wright from Washington.