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Iraq-Kuwait tensions on the rise once more: Navigating troubled waters

Iraq-Kuwait tensions on the rise once more: Navigating troubled waters

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Politics History The Truth

Sunday 1 October 202303:39 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

ميناء "مبارك الكبير" يشعل خلافات العراق والكويت... جغرافيا ثابتة وتاريخ يعيد نفسه؟


The latest crisis between Iraq and Kuwait barely ends before a new one erupts. The two nations share a number of thorny issues that flare up from time to time, igniting tensions between the two countries, despite their shared history and deep-rooted ties. Their relationship transcends mere geographical proximity, extending to tribal affiliations, as the majority of Kuwaiti tribes trace their origins back to Iraq.

A brief period of tranquility and goodwill managed to temporarily quell the disputes between the two countries after Iraq hosted the qualifying matches for the Arabian Gulf Cup. However, tensions resurfaced rapidly on the 4th of September when Iraq's Federal Supreme Court issued a ruling declaring the agreement regulating maritime navigation in the Khawr Abd Allah unconstitutional. So, what's the story?

Recurring disagreements

In 2013, the Iraqi Parliament approved the division of maritime navigation in Khawr Abd Allah, located in the northernmost part of the Arabian Gulf and extends into Iraqi territory, leading to the establishment of Khawr Al-Zubair and Umm Qasr Port in Basra governorate.

Khawr Abd Allah had long been a point of contention between Iraq and Kuwait, particularly after Kuwait initiated the construction of Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port, which occupies a significant portion of the waterway.

The Khawr Abd Allah estuary had long been a point of contention between Iraq and Kuwait, particularly after Kuwait initiated the construction of Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port, which occupies a significant portion of the waterway.

The court justified its decision on September 4th of this year by citing the failure of the agreement to meet constitutional requirements, including the approval of two-thirds of parliament members for international agreements and treaties, as outlined in Article 61 of the Iraqi constitution. Furthermore, it deemed the agreement unfair and detrimental to the country's interests.

In response to Iraq's recent decision, the Kuwaiti Cabinet rejected it and Kuwait's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Salem Abdullah Al-Sabah, called for respect for Kuwait's sovereignty and the sanctity of its territories. Additionally, on September 18th of this year, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, in collaboration with the U.S. Secretary of State, issued a joint statement, urging the completion of the delineation of maritime boundaries between the two nations as a means to resolve the crisis.

The United Nations had previously delineated the land borders between Iraq and Kuwait in 1993, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. However, they left the maritime boundaries of each country unresolved, and both parties continue to reject reaching an agreement to end this ongoing crisis.

The Kuwaiti side is demanding a large area, which it has already started to control with the launch of the Mubarak Port project on Bubiyan Island, near the Iraqi borders. Iraq, on the other hand, believes that this delineation will strangle its maritime access and aims to define areas that would allow it easy access to the Gulf. This is especially crucial considering Iraq's reliance on oil revenues and the importance of these ports as a major hub for its exports.

Iraq has called on its neighbor to halt the construction of the Mubarak Port until a final agreement is reached. However, Kuwait continues to reject this demand.

Iraq's Federal Supreme Court declared the agreement regulating maritime navigation in Khawr Abd Allah unconstitutional. Kuwait condemned the decision and called for respect for Kuwait's sovereignty and territorial integrity, inflaming tensions. What's the story?

Peculiar timing

The timing of this issue being brought up raises several questions. Constitutional researcher Saad Mutalib Al-Jumaily suggests that the main reason for its current timing is that none of the previous governments objected to the terms of the agreement or reviewed it. However, he adds in his statement to Raseef22 that there are political factors at play in raising it now, especially in light of attempts to secure votes and gain public support in the upcoming local elections. It is also seen as an attempt to undermine opponents, particularly since the entities involved in this agreement still hold significant sway in the political arena, such as the Dawa Party and others.

Furthermore, this decision comes just days after the issue of selling part of the Umm Qasr district in Basra Province to Kuwait was raised. This followed a statement by the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister regarding the return of Umm Qasr to its homeland, that is, Kuwait.

The Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuted this matter on August 2nd, citing that the judiciary had not surrendered any territory. Instead, they asserted that a border area falling within the delineation set by Resolution 833 of 1993 between the two countries had been handed over. Furthermore, the Kuwaiti side has constructed alternative housing for Iraqi residents situated within this region.

A source within the Prime Minister's office confirmed that the area relinquished lies several kilometers within Iraqi borders. This raises the possibility that previous governments were involved in the sale of this region. The current government justifies its inability to reclaim the country's rights, especially given that the involved parties are major political entities closely tied to present-day leaders.

Nonetheless, this crisis is not a recent development in the relationship between the two nations. They have been embroiled in numerous conflicts, and the ongoing crises are a result of these historical tensions.

A complex history

The two countries share deep-rooted ties, with the majority of Kuwaiti tribes having Iraqi origins, and extended family members residing in both the Basra Governorate and Kuwait.

Historically, Kuwait was part of the Basra Province during the Ottoman Empire. The situation changed after the Anglo-Ottoman Agreement of 1913, which granted Kuwait independence under the rule of the Al-Sabah family and established its borders with the Basra Province. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the British occupation of Iraq and Kuwait, Emir Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah advocated for the maintenance of the existing delineation, which had been previously agreed upon. Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner in Iraq, endorsed this in 1923.

Political researcher Salam Al-Azzawi states that the periodic resurgence of the Kuwaiti-Iraqi issue is often driven by political motives, usually arising during periods of instability or crisis, as a means to divert public attention from pressing concerns

In 1932, King Faisal I's government, under Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, officially recognized the Kuwaiti-Iraqi borders. However, King Ghazi, who succeeded his father in 1933, later demanded the annexation of Kuwait to the Basra Province in 1939. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and his nationalist inclinations played a role in this demand, according to a research by academic Wiam Shaker Ghani.

Nonetheless, King Ghazi, who harbored his own nationalist sentiments, maintained a close relationship with Germany, defying British influence. This has led to speculation that German influence may have also played a role in these demands, particularly as Germany sought to diminish British influence in the Arabian Gulf and Iraq.

King Ghazi ordered the mobilization of military forces near the borders in preparation for an invasion of Kuwait. However, his sudden death in 1939 thwarted these plans. Additionally, the failure of the May 1941 revolution against the British and the escape of its leader, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, to Germany further quelled these ambitions.

The issue resurfaced after the establishment of the Iraqi Republic in 1958. Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim, at the time, made similar demands, viewing Kuwait as an Iraqi province that had been wrongfully taken. He also assembled military forces near the borders.

The Al Sabah family sought support from various Arab and foreign countries, and several nations responded. Nevertheless, the invasion attempt failed with the death of Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1963.

On October 1st, 1966, Iraq launched an invasion of the Kuwaiti island of Bubiyan in protest of an agreement between the Kuwaiti ruler and Iran to divide the continental shelf without Iraq's involvement. However, Iraq subsequently withdrew from the island after international intervention and the nullification of the agreement.

Political historian Salam Al-Azzawi highlights that the periodic resurgence of the Kuwaiti-Iraqi issue is often driven by political motives. It tends to surface during periods of internal instability or global crises, as a means to divert public attention from pressing concerns, as seen during World War II and, later, when Abd al-Karim Qasim sought to distract the public from the possibility of a coup after learning of attempts against his rule.

However, in his statement to Raseef22, Al-Azzawi emphasizes that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was primarily driven by economic factors rather than territorial claims, or an attempt to distract the public.

At the time, Saddam Hussein justified his actions to invade Kuwait in 1990, by Kuwait's refusal to address Iraq's objections to its oil sales at reduced prices, which severely impacted Iraq's already ailing economy after years of war. Additionally, Baghdad accused the Kuwaiti government of drilling artesian wells near the Iraqi border and siphoning off its oil.

The consequences of this invasion led to a comprehensive breakdown in relations between the two countries. Iraq found itself under a decade-long economic embargo before being burdened with significant debts following its occupation by the Americans in 2003.

After 2003, diplomatic relations were re-established between the two nations, but then border issues resurfaced in 2005 when Baghdad accused its Kuwaiti counterpart of constructing a steel barrier that encroached upon the border delineation and citizens' homes

After the invasion

After 2003, diplomatic relations were re-established between the two nations. Nevertheless, border issues persisted and resurfaced in 2005 when Baghdad accused its Kuwaiti counterpart of constructing a steel barrier that encroached upon the border delineation, resulting in the demolition of citizens' homes in the Umm Qasr district.

Then-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari attempted to defuse the situation, but political rumors suggested that Kuwait had already purchased this region from the Iraqi government, in the same crisis related to the handover of the southern Umm Qasr district in the Basra Governorate to Kuwait.

A source within the Prime Minister's office at the time did not rule out the government's involvement in such treachery, especially since it was politically and personally weak. This was compounded by the politicians' need for funding for their parties and personal agendas.

In his conversation with Raseef22, it is emphasized that complicity is not limited to the sale of border areas but also includes Iraq's agreement on the value of financial compensation related to the 7th article.

Iraq had exited from the category of the 7th article, linked to paying compensation to Kuwait due to its invasion, in 2022. Kuwait had previously rejected several requests from Iraqi governments to reduce the compensation amount, considering it a sovereignty issue.


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