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When Emir Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah returned to Kuwait City this week, he entered into a new world.

Gone was the Kuwait that existed prior to Aug. 2, when Iraqi troops poured savagely into this oil-rich kingdom on the Persian Gulf. The bustling streets and modern buildings of Kuwait City lie shattered, sobering reminders of the destruction wrought by war.Oil fields that formerly pumped billions of dollars into the Kuwaiti economy now produce only dense black smoke, having been turned into burning sacrifices by fleeing Iraqi troops.

Rebuilding this devastated country will be a monumental challenge.

The 55-year-old monarch's return was intended to signal the government's readiness to begin the task, but something was missing.

The subdued atmosphere of the welcoming ceremony was in stark contrast to the spontaneous revelry that greeted allied soldiers when they marched into Kuwait City.

While the Kuwaitis may celebrate the symbolism of the emir's return on the surface, there is clear evidence that many are now dedicated to rebuilding a nation that features democratic rights in place of a sheikdom governed by a single family.

A growing number of those who survived the atrocities of the Iraqi occupation believe they have earned the right to share in both the power and wealth controlled solely by the emir prior to the Persian Gulf war.

They cite the emir's slow return from the safety and comforts enjoyed during exile in Saudi Arabia and the government's failure to deliver on promises to quickly restore running water, electricity and other basic services in the two weeks following Iraq's hasty retreat and the end of hostilities to justify their demands.

And, those pushing for democratic reform do not see the emir's return as a signal that there will be any meaningful change in their grim living conditions any time soon.

Perhaps a more surprising indication that the emir's iron grip is slipping is the skepticism among Kuwaiti professionals concerning the emir's role in a rebuilt Kuwait.

Many say they intend to maintain pressure on the emir to fulfill promises to move toward government reforms.

With the United States expected to play a key role in the efforts to rebuild Kuwait, this might be a prime opportunity for America to subtly influence this newfound interest in democratic reform. Urging the emir to reinstate the Kuwaiti constitution and recall parliament would be good first steps.

Democratic reform is something that should be encouraged and would make the liberation of Kuwait even more worthwhile.