Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in summer 1990, sparked by a border and oil dispute, triggered a war by a US-led international coalition that succeeded in expelling the Iraqi forces from the oil-rich Gulf emirate six months later.
In Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, Saddam’s transgression and the ensuing war changed everything, however, and marked the beginning of a new era in the Middle East that culminated in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the ouster of Saddam’s regime, and the collapse in the regional order.
For 14 years, the preservation of stability on the border of the two countries was a cornerstone of the foreign policy of the new Iraqi regime that replaced Saddam’s rule, but a renewed row over the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border has now returned attention to the conflict and raised fears of a new escalation.
The new dispute started after the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi decided in January to speed up efforts to complete the demarcation of the joint border under an agreement signed with Kuwait in 2012.
Under the UN-enforced agreement, Iraq should have worked with Kuwait to establish a system to administer maritime activities in Khor Abdullah, a strategic waterway on the northern tip of the Arabian Gulf that separate the two countries.
Iraq’s decision to finish the required work, however, sparked protests by government opponents who accused it of capitulating to Kuwait and selling out on what many Iraqis consider as Iraq’s “historic” rights to a canal which is Iraq’s only strategic access to the sea.
Demonstrations erupted against the government in Baghdad and other major cities in Iraq calling for a halt to the agreement. In Basra, Iraq’s southern province on the border with Kuwait, protests continued this week with demonstrators demanding that the government reinforce Iraq’s exclusive sovereignty over the estuary.
Last week, Iraqi MPs said they planned to collect the signatures of 80 members of parliament on a petition to revoke or amend the 2012 agreement, the number required to have a parliamentary debate on an urgent issue.
The government said it was complying with the bilateral maritime agreement, which was approved by the government of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki and endorsed by parliament. It suggested that Iraq could not revoke the agreement without Kuwait’s consent.
Meanwhile, Kuwait said the completion of the demarcation of the waterway was in line with the UN Security Council resolutions that ended the 1991 War. It also welcomed statements by Iraqi government officials that dismissed claims over the Khor Abdullah waterway.
Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah told the local media that more work was needed to update navigational maps and lay down posts in the waterway. He insisted that the measures did not violate Iraq’s territorial sovereignty.
On the other hand, Deputy Interior Minister Suleiman Fahad Al-Fahad dismissed the controversy as merely an “internal political struggle” in Iraq “which has nothing to do with Kuwait”.
The row, however, underlined the lingering territorial dispute between the two countries that has already led to an invasion by Iraq in 1990, an international conflict, several military clashes, political posturing, media wars, diplomatic squabbles and blame-games.
Iraq and Kuwait have had territorial disagreements since modern states came into being in the Middle East following the collapse of the former Ottoman Empire after the First World War.
The border dispute emerged from the arbitrary demarcation of the borders of Iraq by the British colonial authorities that occupied the country after the First World War. The frontier problems then continued to fester, and successive Iraqi governments since the country’s independence in 1923 have refused to recognise the British-drawn borders.
Many Iraqis have even argued that Kuwait was formerly part of the Ottoman province of Basra, and that although its ruling dynasty, the Al-Sabah family, concluded a protectorate agreement with Britain in 1899 that assigned responsibility for its foreign affairs to Britain, this did not mean that the area had seceded from the then Ottoman Empire.
The Iraqi argument goes on to say that the British colonial authorities schemed to split Kuwait off from the Ottoman territories into a separate sheikhdom in order to thwart German attempts at the time to find an outlet on the Gulf for a planned railway linking Berlin to Basra, a line that could have undermined the Suez Canal which was then under British control.
This notion that Kuwait was once a “natural part” of Iraq carved off as a result of British colonialist plans has continued to haunt successive Iraqi regimes, and it was used by Saddam to justify his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
Two of Iraq’s rulers before Saddam, king Ghazi and prime minister Abdel-Karim Qassim, also maintained a similar stance. Qassim refused to recognise Kuwait when it was declared an independent state in 1962.
Kuwait has always denied the Iraqi version of its history and demanded that Iraq recognise its boundaries.
After the 1990 invasion, Saddam annexed Kuwait and declared it to be Iraq’s 19th province. However, after Kuwait’s liberation by a US-led international coalition Saddam formally accepted UN resolutions that assigned the UN to assist in making arrangements with Iraq and Kuwait to demarcate their frontiers.
Under UN Security Council Resolution 833, 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.
Tensions between the two countries have arisen several times in recent years over the border problems. In 2011, Iraq and Kuwait were locked in a bitter wrangle over a port that Kuwait had started building, with Baghdad arguing that the construction violated the two countries’ UN-demarcated border and encroached on its territorial waters.
Iraqi officials maintained that the Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port on Boubyan Island on the Khor Abdullah waterway would limit the access of ships to Iraqi ports because the Kuwaiti port would leave only a narrow lane for Iraq-bound ships.
Later, Iraq’s former foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari claimed that the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait over the $1.1 billion port had been resolved after a technical review carried out by an Iraqi team.
The port was scheduled to be completely operational by 2016.
In March 2013, Kuwaiti border guards opened fire when Iraqi protesters in 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 markers along the 205 km border.
There were no reports of casualties on either side, but the incident underlined the lingering territorial disputes between the two neighbours.
Though both countries profess a desire to work closely together to resolve the border disagreements, the recurring wrangles have showed that the territorial disputes are primary obstacles to closer cooperation between Iraq and Kuwait.
Some of the factors that have contributed to the testy Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations include mutual suspicion of each other’s intentions, bitter memories of Saddam’s invasion (especially in Kuwait), and the huge compensation Iraq had to pay Kuwait after Saddam’s fall.
What haunts many Iraqis is the belief that Kuwait is taking advantage of the instability that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is exploiting the political turmoil and the country’s weakness to claim Iraqi territory for itself.
Some Iraqi nationalists also seem to be trying to keep the debate about their country’s “historic” claim to Kuwait alive in order to send a message to their smaller neighbour that the issue is inextricably linked to Iraqi self-respect and national interests.
In Kuwait, the rising tensions have reopened an old wound, hardened anti-Iraqi sentiments and resurrected suspicions about the country’s northern neighbour.
As tension escalated over the waterway last week, many Kuwaiti MPs recalled Saddam’s invasion of their country in 1990 and urged their government to declare a state of alert in the border area.
Some Kuwaiti MPs demanded that the government take strong action against Iraq.
“Our government’s [passive] policy towards these provocations is encouraging them to overstep the limits,” tweeted Waleed Tabtabaeai, a veteran member of the Kuwaiti parliament, on 11 February.
“They are worse than Saddam,” he wrote in another tweet.
Kuwaiti newspapers have reported that the government has sent reinforcements to the border with the Iraq in order to deal with any eventualities, though officials have denied this.
As much as the authorities in both countries try to cool things down over the territorial disputes, the situation will remain dispiriting to many nationalists on both sides of the border and continue to challenge the forces of reconciliation.