SPECIAL REPORT: WITNESS TO WAR :...

THE HOME FRONT

American troops are coming home. The task of providing observers or peacekeepers along the Iraq-Kuwait border will, in all likelihood, fall to the United Nations.

Those American soldiers are returning to a changed country.

Take, for example, Lucretia Pittman, 48, a Houston homemaker. She was among the many who only recently thought President Bush too quick on the trigger. Let the Arabs solve their own problems, she used to say.

But stories about Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait gave her a new view. She saw GIs on TV being welcomed into Kuwait city as heroic liberators. And she was thrilled.

"Who else but the United States could have pulled this off?" she said. "Who else but the United States would have tried?"

The world's policeman had been exonerated on charges of excessive use of force.

There was a similar transformation in Tamra Heppert, 29, an unemployed woman in Elmwood Park, Ill., who used to argue that killing is always wrong. The Gulf War depressed her. She was in a stupor. She was barely able to do anything but watch TV.

Now the malaise is gone. She is proud. Harassed nations have a bodyguard, she said. "Maybe the United States can't police the world, but the United States and the allies as a coalition certainly can."

Not that anyone is willing to be too hasty to go to war.

Chris Tuttle, the Californian whose mother opposed the war, made it through everything alive and well.

But if his mother could fashion a new world order of her own, it would be one in which economies are not fueled by the prospect of war.

Those that are, she says, create self-fulfilling prophecies.

SAUDI ARABIA

It is natural for Saudis to view victory as a sign that God is blessing them.

This is among the most pious and conservative of the Arab nations. Victory will reinforce Saudi beliefs and might make Islam the ultimate winner in this war.

Hence, and also because the Saudis are very proud of their traditional, religion-based society, it seems unlikely that the past seven months will lead to overwhelming social change. Indeed, an argument can be made that victory over Iraq will reinforce conservatism in this culture.

When Egypt was defeated by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, many Arabs felt it was a sign that they had not been faithful enough. Some of the roots of the revival of religious fundamentalism since then are found in that belief.

Mideast politics, where nation-state is a relatively new term, have been defined more by shifting alliances than by lasting relationships. Some of this might be altered by the outcome of the war. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, antagonists on more than one occasion in the past, were steadfast allies in their opposition to Iraq. They are likely to continue to work as powerful partners in deciding the region's future.

And the Saudi-U.S. relationship, strong in the past, appears unshakable for the foreseeable future.

Saudi Arabia is likely to abandon its old-style checkbook diplomacy. It has found that all those billions of dollars did not buy allies. Much of the Iraqi war machine arrayed against it was bought with money from Saudi Arabia. Other nations that were pro-Iraqi--Jordan and Yemen, for instance--had received large sums from the Saudis in the past.

"What has been proven is that handouts do not make friends," says a senior Saudi official with the wisdom of the chastened.

Finally, the Saudis are newly confident, strengthened by their military and diplomatic successes. This probably will translate into a new assertiveness in the affairs of the Middle East.

"Everybody who stood up for Saddam Hussein is going to go under with Saddam Hussein," Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, said only a few days before the fighting ended. "Either literally--or under by being not important in the equation."

ISRAEL

After the fighting stopped, an outburst of anxiety filled Israeli newspapers.

In the future, the papers said, Israel would pay for not retaliating against Iraq for its Scud attacks. Arabs only understand force, they insisted, and Arab governments would never take the country's deterrent threat seriously again.

The United States, the newspapers went on, would use its role as a new colossus to pressure Israel to settle with the Palestinians. And that meant defeat.

Most people paid little attention to such angst.

As soon as the emergency was over, all shed their gas masks with glee. And the government got back to business in record time. With the crisis petering out, political infighting began: Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres traded barbs on who is more fit to run the country; Foreign Minister David Levy accused Shamir of humiliating him by sending Defense Minister Moshe Arens to Washington in advance of a trip Levy had scheduled; plans leaked out for new settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel earned goodwill from its restraint and sympathy for its suffering--and the political balance abroad seemed heavily in its favor.

"Look," said a right-wing government official, "the Americans did our dirty work by destroying Iraq's nuclear and chemical potential for years to come. Our enemy Syria has been fighting on the allied side, and this could bring some as-yet-unforeseen reduction of tension with Damascus. The Americans are happy that we stayed out and will probably lend us money to deal with our economic problems. As the unprovoked target of Scuds, we have earned a lot of worldwide sympathy.

"Further, the Palestinian leadership has been discredited by their support of Saddam.

"So, I do not think anyone can hold a gun to our head to force us to deal with them."

Other respected, but dovish, figures, see it a bit differently. Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, for instance, believes the Gulf War may provide an unrivaled opportunity to deal with Syria and work out some kind of practical relationship with the Palestinians.

As Kollek said one day while sipping an arrack with a visitor in his office, "I personally think that eventually the Palestinians will have their own country."

BAGHDAD

The world's tiny window on the strange land called Iraq narrowed to a peephole, then finally closed last week in a miniature kaleidoscope of death, sorrow, dread and official cries of triumph--durable postwar images from a nation made over in the singular likeness of a man few could comprehend.

When the curtain came down in the Iraqi capital on Saddam Hussein's odd and ill-fated adventure in Kuwait, as the last of the eyes and ears of Western journalists were politely expelled from Baghdad late Friday afternoon, the closing scene was as hard to miss as to understand.

Baghdad's bus stations were jammed with women of all ages, who wiped their tears with soiled head scarves as they waited, day after day, for a husband or a son who probably would not return from the war that Saddam had told them they won.

Even today, the Iraqis are convinced that most of their compatriots were well out of harm's way when the United States and its allies swept virtually unchallenged through Kuwait and into their southern desert.

But this gives little comfort to Iraqis who know, perhaps only in their hearts, that they suffered a crushing and humiliating defeat. Even in the doublespeak that Saddam has successfully incorporated into the language of his nation, victory from retreat just does not compute.

Then, there is the steady procession of flag-draped coffins streaming up from the south, fanning out into Baghdad's sprawling neighborhoods like the final fingertips of death from a war that no one wanted.

These are painful scenes, symbols of weakness in a culture that respects only strength, the enduring tombstones of the mistakes of a single man that now reflect on an entire nation.

It is no wonder the Iraqis asked their foreign guests to leave last Friday. The time for propaganda and image are over for now, at least until it is time to rebuild. Now the only images are ones of failure, death, internal anger and revolt, of the purge that always follows.

As at a funeral, it is time for the Iraqis to mourn in peace.

Iraq had won, and its troops would get a hefty pay raise for "the heroic role the Iraqi military performed in the Mother of All Battles," a fight that almost never happened because Saddam had ordered those same forces to retreat virtually before it could begin.

In the end, Iraq had won by enduring, Saddam told his people, crediting their legendary "steadfastness" for helping him and the nation of 17 million withstand seven months of economic strangulation, two months of the world's most sophisticated bombing and missile attacks and 100 hours of humiliation in battle on the ground.

Baghdad had endured, but the toilets won't flush. The lights don't go on. There's no gasoline. The bridges are gone. There's no heat. There's no meat. And, in every house, there are sons, fathers, husbands and cousins missing from the dinner table. And they never will be back.

In fact, as Iraq began to disappear from the world's TV screens last week, only one thing remained unchanged in Iraqis' daily lives. Only one familiar reality had outlasted the grimmest time in Iraq since Baghdad was sacked and physically demolished in the 13th Century.

That was Saddam Hussein himself.

The simple fact was that the fate of each of his people remained within his iron grip of fear, paternalism and what the great manipulator calls "Iraqi pride."

"Life here in Iraq," one Baghdadi told a departing journalist as Saddam's adventure in Kuwait finally came to a close, "well, it's different than life elsewhere. It isn't really living the way you know it.

"It's just survival. And it's always been this way.

"We have many secrets, we Iraqis, but this is the most important one of all: How to survive where death is so much a part of life.

"Understand this and you will understand Iraq."

KUWAIT CITY

The enemy has refused to go away.

Abandoned Iraqi helmets and guns lie strewn throughout the city. A lieutenant's combat fatigues, rank with body odor, hang in the back office of the police station in Abdullah Salem. In a large house under construction in the Jabriyah district, three mattresses with blankets have been found, and beside them some Iraqi gear bags, a few jars of honey, some stone-hard Iraqi bread, a small teapot, a shaving kit.

In Dasman Palace, there are remnants of the enemy's hatred: human excrement in the hallways, slaughtered cattle left to rot in the sumptuous reception rooms, scrawlings on the wall--"The Emir Is a Jackass."

In a blackened, smashed tangle of vehicles on the northbound highway out of Kuwait city, where much of the retreating Iraqi convoy was cut down by U.S. warplanes, there is a letter from an Iraqi soldier to his girlfriend, written in pencil on stationery from the Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior.

"My sweetheart, my beloved," begins the letter from Zaydan Assady, dated Feb. 26. "Sadly, I have been hearing rumors through friends that you have not been faithful to me. . . . I want to hear the truth straight from you, no left, no right. If there is someone else, tell me."

He goes on to request a meeting the next night "at the usual place" in Baghdad.

And the memory of the enemy is etched in the minds of the once gentle, occasionally frivolous Kuwaitis, who now know how to use guns and who have vowed to use them to drive collaborators out of their country once and for all.

In this continuing climate of fear, at least two Palestinians have been killed and a dozen others beaten--this time, presumably, by Kuwaitis, not Iraqis. And many Kuwaitis have started turning on their own government, blaming the emir for fleeing the enemy, blaming the army for failing to fight. There is martial law. No one can say when it will be lifted.

The lights still aren't on.

In peace, Kuwait city is shrouded in darkness, and Kuwait, in some ways, remains a country under occupation--by anger, recrimination, fear and regret.

"It will come back," said Othman Othman, who had been alerted by a friend's phone call to the battle of liberation, then quickly saw it confirmed by the glare of antiaircraft fire over captive Kuwait city. Now he was strolling along an abandoned marina, where pleasure boats lay half sunk in the water. Barbed wire shrouded a beach where young women in bikinis sunbathed last July.

"But," he said, "it needs a lot of time."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°