Long, long before you get there, you can smell Kuwait. As BUSINESS WEEK Pentagon correspondent Russell Mitchell and I set off on a 300-mile drive up Saudi Arabia's coast for a look at the liberated emirate, the morning sun shines brilliantly. But a good 200 miles from the border, the wide desert sky darkens before us. The effect is stunning, like one of those sunny August days in the American West that give way to a rolling wave of black thunderclouds. Instead, this darkness is sulfurous smoke drifting south from the 600-odd oil wells the Iraqis have torched. By day's end, our skin will be coated with a greasy film.
GHOSTLY WRECKS. Getting into Kuwait is a surprising snap. The once-impressive customs crossing is now a wreck, shattered when Iraqi troops swooped into the Saudi oil town of Khafji during Saddam Hussein's one brief offensive. Saudi soldiers wave us through. We're the lucky ones: It'll be weeks at least before the first of 400,000 Kuwaiti refugees can go home, since restoring water, power, and such will take time.
Across the border, wreckage is everywhere. Ghostly outlines of Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery float on the smoky horizon. Our Toyota Cressida lurches across what was once a six-lane highway, now torn up every few yards. Several big standing-room-only trucks speed past, each wrapped in barbed wire to hold Iraqi POWs. Two Soviet-built T-55 tanks, one clad in "applique armor," which the Iraqis cooked up for extra protection, are smashed together at roadside. We have lots of time to examine them, for our car has given out, a tire cut to shreds by shrapnel on the road. Eventually, a U. S. Army pickup stops, and we hop on. Destination: Kuwait International Airport--the Iraqis' last stand just two days ago.
As we pass Salwa and Mashraf, Kuwait City's southern suburbs, kids and black-robed women line the road to cheer U. S., Saudi, and Kuwaiti soldiers. Having long covered the tortured relations between the U. S. and the Arab world, I'm gratified to see Kuwaitis--who once kept a frosty distance from Washington--cheering us. We reach the airport. It's hellish. While downtown Kuwait City escaped wholesale damage, the airport will have to be totally rebuilt. We wander into a deserted, trash-strewn administration building the Iraqis had used as a headquarters. I pick up a notebook. On the first page, I read in Arabic: "This book is Muhammad Omran's. I will write here the record of our battles." Omran never got to it. The other pages are blank.
PLO FACTOR. Just outside the airport gates, five Kuwaiti teenagers pick us up in their minivan. They've all been virtual prisoners in their houses since the Aug. 2 invasion. Several say they were beaten by Iraqi soldiers the few times they ventured outside. Salah Awadi, the 18-year-old driver, had just returned in July from a few months studying English in Reseda, Calif.
We pass through Hawali, a Palestinian neighborhood. One family peers fearfully from behind a makeshift barricade in front of the house. Kuwait is home to a rich Palestinian community. About 250,000 are left, and their future is uncertain because of the Palestine Liberation Organization's unstinting support for Saddam. Even though some individuals fought in the resistance, Kuwaitis blame them as a group. Salah says: "I hate the Palestinians. They are going to go."
Already, Kuwaiti vigilantes are reportedto be gunning down Palestinians, Sudanese, and Jordanians--all of whose leaders backed the losers. That's the Mideast. I want to think that its peoples will find a way to use this tragedy to shed centuries of accumulated hate. I know they won't.
We drive back to Saudi Arabia ina U. S. Army van full of captured ammo. In the front seat, Ken and Chuck, from the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, are giddy with victory. We are silent: The burning wells, the hatred in Kuwait, and now, news of bloodshed in southern Iraq tell us the pain of this war is far from over.