Missionary, 2 U.S. Soldiers Are Shot in Middle East

K By Michael Slackman and John Daniszewski

kUWAIT CITY – Two U.S. soldiers were shot and seriously wounded Thursday in this tiny nation bordering Iraq and an American missionary was gunned down in Lebanon, the latest in a spate of attacks that suggest it has become increasingly dangerous to be American in the Arab world.

Threats and assaults on U.S. citizens and businesses have become more frequent in recent weeks, even in countries such as Kuwait and Jordan that had long been considered among the safest and most pro-American in the region.

Some of the incidents may be spontaneous, traceable to rising anti-American sentiment fueled by the possibility of a U.S.-led war against Iraq, and by what is seen as Washington’s unquestioning support for Israel. But other attacks, observers say, may be part of an orchestrated campaign by al-Qaida and its supporters to follow Osama bin Laden’s recent dictate to kill Americans and their allies.

Although authorities here and in Lebanon said it was too soon to identify a motive in either assault Thursday, the incidents underscore the reality that Americans were forced to confront on Sept. 11: that extremists have declared them all fair game.

As security is increased at official U.S. sites, terrorists will seek “softer” targets, the State Department warned in a worldwide alert Wednesday. These may include facilities where Americans live or visit, such as residential neighborhoods, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, hotels, outdoor events or resorts.

Yet Americans should not draw the false conclusion that everyone hates their country, insisted one government spokesman in this oil-rich emirate that U.S. troops liberated from Iraq 11 years ago.

“There is no anti-Americanism at all in Kuwait,” said Yahqoub Abdullah of the Kuwaiti Information Ministry. “A bunch of kids is ruining our relations – doing illegal things. We in Kuwait appreciate what you have done for us. These kids doing these things don’t have Kuwaiti hearts – they are really, really shameful.”

Bonnie Whitherall, 31, of Washington, was the first victim Thursday. A nurse and Christian missionary, Whitherall was volunteering at a clinic for the poor in the biblical Lebanese port city of Sidon. As she opened the front door at about 8:30 a.m., someone shot her in the head three times.

She was found face down in a pool of blood. Nothing was stolen, and some observers said she could just as well have been targeted for her religion as for being an American because of southern Lebanon’s history of sectarian violence.

In Kuwait, where the government is so jittery about attacks on Americans they have banned residents from nearly a quarter of the nation where the U.S. military operates, the two soldiers were shot by a Kuwaiti traffic police officer who then fled across the border to Saudi Arabia, authorities here said. Authorities are working to extradite the suspect.

The officer was described as a junior member of the traffic department. He opened fire about 10:30 a.m. as the soldiers drove from the U.S. military base of Camp Doha to the town of Arifjan on official business. The soldiers were dressed in military desert camouflage and driving a military vehicle, according to a Pentagon spokesman.

One soldier was hit in the face and the other in the shoulder. The soldiers, who didn’t return fire, managed to drive on to Arifjan, from which they were airlifted to a Kuwaiti military hospital. U.S. officials did not release the identities of the injured soldiers pending notification of their families. A Pentagon spokesman said their injuries, while serious, did not appear to be life-threatening.

The attack on U.S. servicemen in Kuwait – the third in slightly more than a month – is particularly striking because the Pentagon is relying on the emirate as a launching point for a potential invasion of Iraq.

While Washington has largely dismissed the concerns of regional leaders who caution that they may face trouble controlling public reaction if there is an invasion of Iraq, these incidents suggest those warnings may have merit.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking in the Czech Republic where he was attending a NATO summit, played down the possibly broader significance Thursday, telling reporters that the shooting didn’t necessarily reflect anger with America’s buildup of troops in Kuwait in anticipation of a new Iraq war.

“There have been terrorist attacks in that region for my entire adult lifetime, and that’s a long time,” the 70-year-old said.

Nevertheless, the shootings have raised alarms over the prospect of increased terrorist attacks both large and small. Ominously, they coincide with an audiotape said to be of bin Laden that was broadcast earlier this month calling for attacks on the United States and its allies. U.S. officials have said the tape appears to be authentic and might foreshadow “spectacular” attacks soon.