27-03-2013 04:25PM ET
More than a border dispute
Can Iraqis and Kuwaitis draw appropriate lessons from their turbulent past and live peacefully as neighbours, asks Salah Nasrawi
The escalation of tensions along the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border and the consequent political developments have cast a long shadow over efforts to normalise relations between Baghdad and Kuwait more than two decades after the invasion of the tiny emirate by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Iraq hopes that the UN Security Council will make a formal announcement next month to lift the remaining UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1990 invasion following the completion of the border demarcation between the two long-time foes.
Under the sanctions to force Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait, Iraq was placed under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter, which gives the Security Council the power to take military and non-military action to “restore international peace and security”.
Kuwait has rejected all Iraqi attempts to lift the embargo until Iraq fulfils its obligations, including ending border-demarcation disputes, determining the fate of missing Kuwaiti persons and property, and payment of war reparations and loans made to Saddam to fight the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War.
Earlier this month, Iraqi residents of the border town of Umm Qasr threw stones in protest against the demarcation of the border with Kuwait after workers tried to evict them from their houses to build pillars along the 205km border.
The United Nations has set 31 March as the deadline for ensuring the completion of the work and before the Security Council meets again to review Iraq’s compliance with the obligations.
In a report to the council this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reminded Iraq of the need to remove all obstacles to the completion of the project marking the border between Iraq and Kuwait on time.
The Umm Qasr incident, which prompted security forces on both sides of the frontier to fire in the air to disperse the protesters, underlined the lingering territorial dispute between the two neighbours.
Successive Iraqi governments since the modern state of Iraq came into being in 1923 have not accepted the British-drawn borders that established Kuwait as a separate sheikhdom after the signature of the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913.
After his 1990 invasion, Saddam annexed Kuwait and declared it to be Iraq’s 19th province. However, after the sheikdom’s liberation by a US-led international coalition Saddam formally accepted UN resolutions that assigned the organisation to assist in making arrangements with Iraq and Kuwait to demarcate the boundary between them.
The United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission was established to help define the border between the two countries, its mandate being that its decisions regarding the demarcation of the boundary would be final.
The Security Council also provided a map for the demarcation and decided to “guarantee the inviolability of the above-mentioned international boundary and to take as appropriate all necessary measures to that end in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”.
Work in demarcating the boundaries, however, was brought to a halt by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Later, the IKBMP, or Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Maintenance Project, was established in the form of a joint committee between both countries to finalise efforts to determine the borders.
No final agreement has yet been announced, and many Iraqis in the area remain opposed to the demarcation negotiations, saying that the new border has robbed them of property and territory.
After the Umm Qasr incident, Kuwait expressed its dismay to the United Nations, claiming that the Iraqis had obstructed UN-supervised border-sign maintenance and had removed the border fence between two signs.
Days later, Kuwait arrested at least six Iraqi fishermen and seized their boats, allegedly for crossing into the emirate’s territorial waters, in the latest incident to have taken place in the narrow strip of water separating the two countries at the northern tip of the Arabian Gulf.
The Kuwaiti coastguard often opens fire on Iraqi fishermen in the area, claiming encroachment on its territorial waters.
Government officials in Iraq and Kuwait have avoided making public statements on the recent incident probably in order to avoid a flare up, but politicians on both sides have talked up the border dispute, some apparently for reasons of political opportunism.
In Kuwait, several lawmakers wanted to question their government and called for tougher measures to protect Kuwaiti employees and military personnel in the border area. Others have been seeking a slow-down in normalising relations with Iraq.
Iraqi parliamentarians went as far as to ask their government to stop its cooperation with the United Nations in the demarcation work altogether.
The Al-Sadr bloc, which is controlled by the radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, called on the Iraqi government to renegotiate the border deal, which it said had been unfairly imposed by the United Nations.
The Iraqi government has made it clear that it wants to comply with all the UN resolutions relating to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in order to convince the Security Council to lift the crippling obligations under chapter 7 of the UN charter from Iraq.
Iraq hopes that an expected visit by Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak to Baghdad next month will end several pending issues, including the demarcation of borders.
Ahead of the visit, Kuwait said it had agreed with Iraq to build new houses for Iraqis to quicken the demarcation process. Under the plan, a new housing project accommodating more than 200 Iraqi families will be built some three kilometres from the border posts and beyond a security zone.
For Kuwait, the US-led war that toppled Saddam in 2003 was supposed to herald a new relationship with Iraq, a country that had long been ruled by hostile regimes and had briefly subjugated it to a ruthless military occupation.
For many Kuwaitis, the question now is still whether post-Saddam Iraq will be peaceful and friendly towards Kuwait and abide by the rules of international law, or whether it use its oil heft and large population to get its way.
Ten years after the US-led invasion, Kuwaitis still seem concerned by the spectre of threats from their northern neighbour. The Kuwaitis fear that some Iraqis still challenge their version of the history of their country and could still claim that Kuwait belongs to Iraq.
Another mantra repeated by many Kuwaitis, mostly Sunni Muslims, is that post-US-invasion Iraq is dominated by pro-Iranian Shias and these could be just as threatening as an Iraq led by the Sunni Saddam.
Recently, some Kuwaiti lawmakers have alleged that thousands of Iraqi Shias who entered the emirate during the invasion and sought settlement there are loyal to the Mahdi Army, an Iraqi paramilitary force created by Muqtada Al-Sadr.
Meanwhile, many Iraqis are worried about Kuwait’s intentions and wonder if the oil-rich emirate will want to relinquish its past fears about Iraq and work to maintain long-term friendly relations with their country regardless of who is in power in Baghdad.
They also prefer to limit the disputes and claims and counter-claims within the two countries in order to try to resist any involvement and display of leadership by a third party, even if it is the United Nations.
One of the remaining contentious issues is Kuwait’s construction of a major port on Boubyan Island on the Khor Abdallah waterway, which is the only strategic access to the sea for Iraq.
Many Iraqis maintain that the Mubarak Al-Kabir Port will limit access to Iraqi ports because the Kuwaiti port would leave only a narrow lane free for Iraq-bound ships.
Kuwait maintains that the mega-project is being built in order to meet its needs for a strategic port in the region and that it would not choke off Iraqi ports.
Amid tensions over the construction of the Port last year, Iraqi radical groups threatened to launch rocket attacks on the port if work was not stopped on its construction.
Iraq and Kuwait are bound to find common ground and to start confidence-building measures in order to maintain a stable and amicable relationship. It is essential that Iraq quickly frees itself from the UN Chapter 7 sanctions and that Kuwait facilitates this.
Iraq, on the other hand, should also make every effort to mitigate fears that it is an existential threat to its southern neighbour. If relations between Iraq and Kuwait were to become hostile once more, the whole region would suffer.