Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 August 2011
Issue No. 1061
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Troubled waters

What lies beneath the current Iraqi-Kuwaiti dispute in the Gulf and should the world be watching, asks Salah Nasrawi

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Iraqi security forces inspect the site where a suicide car bomber plowed his vehicle into a checkpoint outside a police building in the holy city of Najaf. Bomb blasts ripped through more than a dozen Iraqi cities Monday morning, killing scores of people

A dispute between Iraq and Kuwait over maritime boundaries has been sparking fears of conflict, as both countries continue bickering over the tiny emirate's construction of a port that Baghdad says could block its passage to the Gulf and hamper plans to expand its own port facilities.

Tensions rose after Kuwait beefed up security around its Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port following threats by Iraqi groups to attack the site and warnings from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki that his country would appeal to the UN Security Council in order to try to prevent Kuwait from continuing construction.

Kuwait announced in April that it was beginning to construct the multi-billion-dollar container port on Boubyan Island close to the border with Iraq. It said the project, due for completion in 2016, was designed to meet its needs for an efficient and strategic port that would make Kuwait a hub for the region.

Iraq says the construction of the port will strangle its shipping lanes and hamper access to harbours for large vessels and to its only naval base on the Gulf. It also says that the new port will affect its plans to build its own port on the Al-Faw Peninsula, about 1,000 metres across a shallow waterway from the planned Kuwaiti port.

Iraq is eager to increase its oil and gas exports in order to pay for reconstruction after decades of wars and sanctions that have left much of the country's infrastructure badly damaged. The Gulf is a key outlet for the export of Iraqi oil, which accounts for almost all of the country's foreign revenues.

Iraq hopes that the Al-Faw Grand Port, part of an ambitious plans to modernise its outdated port facilities, will spur economic activity and become a gateway for trade linking Asia with Europe.

Iraq's coastline now stands at 57 kilometres, while Kuwait's coasts extend to about 500 kilometres, after a demarcation imposed by the Security Council as one of several issues covered in UN Resolution 833 relating to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The UN-demarcated boundaries remain subject to Chapter VII status under the UN Charter, which authorises the use of force should Iraq violate them.

The border issue between the two countries has been resurfacing periodically since 1990, notably in 2010 when the Iraqi representative to the Arab League, Qais Al-Azzawi, made statements rejecting the UN's demarcation of the Iraq-Kuwait border.

Kuwait condemned the remarks and requested clarification from Baghdad, with the latter responding that Al-Azzawi had been misquoted and denying any intention to discredit the UN demarcation.

Iraq has now officially asked Kuwait to halt all construction work on its new port, saying that if it is prevented from using its own ports by the Kuwaiti construction this will constitute a violation of Iraqi rights under UN Resolution 833.

The new dispute has deepened the rivalry between the two countries, which dates back at least to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait 20 years ago and now threatens to plunge the two states into a new high-stakes game.

Last week, Kataeb Hizbullah, an Iraqi Iranian-backed militant Shia group, warned that it would strike the Kuwaiti port if Kuwait did not halt construction. Kataeb Hizbullah members, who operate mostly in southern Iraq, have already claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on US troops in Iraq, and last week's threat was the group's second to Kuwait in a month.

On Sunday, another Iraqi Shia group warned that it would mobilise crowds on the Kuwaiti border "if construction is not halted." The so-called State of the Law Knights, a previously unknown group bearing the name of Al-Maliki's parliamentary group, gave Kuwait 10 days to stop "harming the Iraqi people."

An Iraqi lawmaker, Khadum Al-Shimari, said that Iraqi militant groups could "easily" carry out attacks in Kuwait in retaliation for building the port complex, adding that the Baghdad government would not be able to stop armed groups from attacking the facilities.

For its part, Kuwait has rejected an Iraqi government request to stop construction of the port until Iraq receives guarantees that it will not violate its maritime rights.

Kuwait has said that it will continue to work on the port despite threats from Iraqi militants to strike if construction continues, and it has urged the Iraqi government to shoulder its responsibility in preventing such attacks.

Kuwait also received an Iraqi delegation in May sent to probe the effects of the construction of the port on Iraq, and a second team was dispatched this week for a further inquiry. Kuwait has said that it stands ready to answer any questions posed by the visiting delegation and that it will allow it to tour the area.

Plans to develop the Boubyan Island, an 863-square-kilometre largely uninhibited area of desert and mud flats, have been coming from Kuwait for years.

The Mubarak al-Kabeer Port seems to be part of a larger construction that Kuwait plans to build in the nearby Subbiya area. Named Madinat Al-Hareer, or City Of Silk, this will be a multi-purpose city accommodating commercial, cultural and residential areas and built on over 250 square kilometres.

The city, whose construction costs are estimated at $90 billion, would be linked to mainland Kuwait by a bridge, a new airport north of Kuwait City, and a railway line and road networks.

The port and the city would be the closest free zone area to Central Asia and Europe from Iraq and Iran.

Iraq's concerns thus seem to have less to do with the port's supposed threats to navigation in the Khour Abdullah, the shallow waterway that separates Boubyan from the Al-Faw Peninsula, than with the country's political and economic interests.

An Iraqi Ministry of Transportation blueprint shows the proposed Iraqi Al-Faw Grand Port connected by rail to Europe via Turkey in a project named "the dry canal" in a reference to the existing Suez Canal.

The multi-billion-dollar port facility, with an area of more than a million square metres, is expected to handle 99 million tonnes of goods a year. While the project is still in the planning stages, once implemented it would be able to serve as a transit point for goods from Japan, China and Southeast Asia on their way to Europe, Iraq already being linked to neighbouring Turkish and Syrian railways.

Last month, former Iraqi transport minister Amer Abdel-Jabbar disclosed that Tehran was also stepping up pressure on Baghdad to give it a stake in the "dry canal project" by linking its railways to those of Iraq.

Abdel-Jabbar told the London-based Al Hayat newspaper on 31 July that the Iranians had struck a deal with his successor Hadi Al-Amiri to link their rail network with that of Iraq after he left his ministerial post last year.

Construction of the Al-Faw Grand Port has been delayed by Iraq's prolonged period of political stalemate since the 2003 US-led invasion, and Iraqi experts now fear that the Kuwaiti port is intended to pull the ground out from under the Iraqi project.

Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was not the first time that Iraq has positioned itself to occupy its smaller neighbour. A short-lived Iraqi incursion into the oil-rich emirate in 1973 allowed Iraqis to occupy border outposts inside Kuwait.

Two of Iraq's former rulers before Saddam, King Ghazi and president Abdel-Karim Qassim, also claimed that Kuwait was part of Iraq during the period of Ottoman rule before the emirate's ruling dynasty, the Al-Sabah family, was encouraged by the British to secede.

There have been no such claims during the current crisis, at least not in public, but many observers fear that rising tensions on both sides of the border could spark a flare-up between the two rivals.

Kuwait has stepped up security in Boubyan and around the Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port after the Iraqi threats. Local newspapers said army and navy units had been dispatched to the area and troops given orders to shoot in case of violations of the border.

The situation between the two countries is worrying, but it may not be heading to disaster, as US soldiers are currently posted in both Iraq and Kuwait and should be able to deter any conflict.

However, the world may not be able to relax just yet, since current tensions show that old wounds have not yet healed and that they could be reopened by greed or miscalculation.

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