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Analysis: Two Kuwaiti Gunmen Open Fire On U.S. Marines

All Things Considered: October 8, 2002

Kuwait Shootings

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm John Ydstie.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

And I'm Jacki Lyden.

Today a US military war game briefly seemed to become a real skirmish. US Marines were practicing an assault on an island off the coast of Kuwait when they encountered civilian gunmen firing live bullets. One Marine was killed and a second wounded. NPR's Steve Inskeep covers national security issues and joins us now.

Steve, what were the Marines doing on this island?

STEVE INSKEEP reporting:

Jacki, this was an exercise which we're told was called Eager Mace 2002. It's one of a series of exercises that the United States military has conducted with the Kuwaiti military in the years since the Gulf War in 1991.

This island is called Failaka Island. And we're told that it was a resort before the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. The island was utterly devastated during the Gulf War--the land was mined, buildings were blown down--and the island was essentially evacuated after the war. The Kuwaiti government paid to relocate all the residents. And now the ruins are used for military maneuvers. In fact, we're told that the US Marines were practicing an urban assault, using this real devastated city as their backdrop, in a sense, or as their stage on which to perform. And although this is a long-scheduled exercise, it's hard not to observe that the United States is contemplating the possibility of urban warfare in Iraq.

Now during this amphibious landing, we're told a couple of gunmen approached the US Marines, drove up in a pickup truck, they opened fire. One Marine is dead; one Marine is wounded. The US Marines, fortunately, were in the midst of a live-fire exercise; they have live ammunition. They fired back. They killed the two gunmen. They captured a truck and some AK-47s.

LYDEN: You mentioned that both gunmen were killed. Was anything learned about their identities or where they came from?

INSKEEP: The Kuwaiti government calls them terrorists flat out. Kuwait's Interior Ministry names the dead men as Anas Ahmed Ibrahim al-Kandari and Jassem Mubarak al-Hajiri. Those names may not mean too much to us, but they're both in their 20s, and we're told that both are Kuwaiti citizens. And Kuwait's own government is saying that its own citizens were terrorists here. The US says the men were in civilian clothes. And it's not clear how they got on the island. It's a generally uninhabited island. And Kuwaiti officials are speculating that they may have sneaked onto the island just for this attack, although that is by no means clear.

LYDEN: Steve, 31 people were taken into custody. Who are these people?

INSKEEP: All we know is that Kuwaiti authorities rounded them up. They're being described as material witnesses. Now not everybody who happens to be on that island is necessarily an intruder. Apparently former residents return from time to time, Jacki. People go there to fish. So we don't know that all of these 31 or even any of them were necessarily involved in this attack, but they were civilians who were in the vicinity of this US Marine operation. And after the shooting, the local authorities went around and rounded them up.

LYDEN: Steve, although these exercises have been described as routine since the end of the Gulf War, obviously security is a matter of concern. How have military leaders reacted to the incident?

INSKEEP: Well, US forces are already careful in this region. As you know, Jacki, US forces in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other regions stay away from civilian populations, both for cultural reasons--they don't want to inflame people who are not happy having non-Muslims on their territory--and also for security reasons. In fact, since the bombing of a barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the US military forces have tried to make themselves even more isolated. But if you're going out on an exercise, you're going out on an exercise; you are exposing yourself to the possibility of enemy fire. And certainly this incident underlines the risks for US forces in the region, risks that, according to some experts, may only increase. As the risk of war with Iraq increases, the possibility of some kind of attack against US forces that may be vulnerable in the region also increases.

LYDEN: Well, thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're welcome, Jacki.

LYDEN: NPR's Steve Inskeep.

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