Slow, but steady
Iraq and Kuwait are making slow progress towards lifting the UN-imposed sanctions on Baghdad, but a full rapprochement could take time, writes Salah Nasrawi
More than 22 years after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait after accusing its rulers of strangling Iraq by keeping oil prices low through pumping more than its quota and stealing from the two countries’ shared oil fields, relations between Iraq and its southern Gulf neighbour remain cool, signalling difficulties in resolving the long-running saga.
A key obstacle to warming relations are the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq following the invasion and Kuwait’s refusal to lift the punishment nearly ten years after the ouster of Saddam in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, despite the Iraqis’ appeals to Kuwait to relieve them of the penalties.
Kuwait still receives five per cent of Iraq’s oil and gas revenues as compensation for the 1990 invasion, and it refuses to let up on other penalties imposed under chapter VII of the UN Charter.
Since 1994, when the UN set up a reparations fund, Baghdad has paid some $40 billion to Kuwait with a further $13 billion in compensation still due. There are also several other issues stemming from the Iraqi invasion, including land and maritime borders between the two countries.
The controversy came under the spotlight last week when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited Kuwait and Iraq in a bid to end the dispute. Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak, is also expected to travel to Iraq next month for discussion on the issues that block normalising relations with Iraq.
A look back at the history of relations between the two neighbouring countries indicates that the row is deep-rooted. Successive Iraqi governments never accepted the British-drawn borders that established Kuwait as a separate sheikhdom after the signature of the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913.
In 1961, Iraq’s then prime minister, Abdel-Karim Kassem, refused to recognise Kuwait’s independence of that year and declared the entity to be an integral part of Iraq. However, he did not send in troops to back up his claim.
Relations between the two countries deteriorated for economic and diplomatic reasons that culminated in Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Saddam alleged that Kuwait was conspiring with Iraq’s enemies to undermine its oil-based economy and that it was stealing oil by slant drilling across the border into Iraqi oil fields.
Later, Saddam justified the invasion by claiming that Kuwait was a “natural part” of Iraq carved off as a result of British imperialism.
However, Saddam’s army was driven out of Kuwait six months after the invasion by a US-led international coalition, and Iraq subsequently remained under scathing sanctions that claimed the lives of millions of Iraqi children and the sick and elderly, with particularly devastating effects on the country’s economy.
Most of the sanctions were removed after Saddam’s downfall, but the Iraq-Kuwait issues have remained a red line under the UN Security Council’s care, as Kuwait has insisted.
Among the issues Kuwait still insists on are war reparations, border demarcation, the restoration of Kuwaiti property, and the fate of Kuwaitis missing or taken prisoner by Saddam’s army.
While the Iraqis have complied with the UN resolutions and have remained committed to paying the remaining compensation due to Kuwait, as well as maintaining border signs and seeking means to determine the fate of the missing Kuwaitis, Iraq also wants Kuwait to negotiate bilaterally, and it has asked the United Nations to remove Iraq from the chapter VII sanctions.
“Frankly, we want to close the outstanding files, bearing in mind that it was not we who invaded Kuwait, but an adventurer who brought conflict to our two countries and slaughtered so many people,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki told a group of Kuwaiti journalists last week, in a reference to Saddam.
On Monday, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, took the Iraqi move a step further and summoned the Baghdad ambassadors of the Security Council’s permanent member states to tell them that Iraq had fulfilled its commitments and that it was time to release the country from its chapter VII obligations.
Iraq has also taken steps to end the other remaining disputes with Kuwait, including sending back the remains of 265 people out of the about 600 declared missing since the invasion, and cooperating in returning Kuwaiti archives and documents.
The Iraqi government has recently approved a $500 million deal to settle a financial dispute between Kuwaiti Airways and Iraqi Airways and end litigation in a dispute over Kuwaiti civilian planes moved to Iraq during the occupation.
Last week, the Iraqi government named a technical team to take part in a joint border post maintenance project, and it said it would provide a list of Iraqi farmers on the border that were entitled to compensation after the demarcation.
On Sunday, Reuters reported that Iraq had asked Kuwait Energy to acquire shares in Turkey’s state-owned TPAO’s exploration block of nine oil fields after the Iraqi cabinet decided to expel the Turkish company from the project.
Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussein Sharastani also said on Sunday that the two governments had agreed to start investing jointly in oil fields along their common border as part of an effort to end remaining differences.
However, up till now Kuwait has remained defiant and has brushed off Iraqi demands to end the sanctions under the UN chapter, insisting that Iraq should be kept under UN scrutiny for now.
Ahead of Ban Ki-Moon’s visit, Kuwait’s permanent representative to the UN, Mansour Al-Otaibi, told the KUNA national news agency that his country “shall push for Iraq meeting what remains of its obligations, as stated by the UN Security Council resolutions”.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah told a local newspaper last week that the Gulf emirate would not relieve Iraq of either the war reparations or the debts, which Iraq says come to about $6 billion.
Kuwait says Iraq owes it around $16 billion as a result of loans made to Saddam to fight the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War, which was largely bankrolled by the oil-rich Gulf state.
For its part, the United Nations, which should have the last word on whether Iraq has complied with its obligations, has remained undecided.
While in Kuwait last week, Ban Ki-Moon said he was “committed to normalisation and to ensuring that Iraq fulfills all of its outstanding international obligations regarding Kuwait, as the Security Council has mandated.”
That can hardly be seen by Iraqis as an encouraging sign. Many Iraqis are sceptical about the UN and believe that the organisation is acting as a proxy to keep Iraq under control.
In addition to freezing large amounts of Iraq’s revenues in UN-controlled bank accounts to pay compensation to those affected by the invasion, the chapter provisions allow the use of force against Iraq should it become a threat to international security.
On Saturday, an Iraqi lawmaker criticised the United Nations for still maintaining the “unjust” sanctions. “This injustice imposed on Iraq should be lifted as long as Iraq has fulfilled its obligations and is no longer a threat to international peace and stability,” Alia Nusaif wrote in a letter to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).
“The United Nations should shoulder its responsibility and end Iraq’s status under chapter VII and not leave that to Kuwait’s wishes,” she wrote.
Iraqi officials now hope that a visit by Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak to Baghdad next month will contribute to the resolution of the remaining issues and pave the way for Iraq to be removed from the humiliating sanctions.
On Saturday, a Kuwaiti newspaper quoted Al-Mubarak as saying that his country was “ready to [do] whatever it takes to remove Iraq from chapter VII in line with the diplomatic framework and UN resolutions”.
However, understandable though these high Iraqi expectations and Kuwaiti measured promises may be, under prevailing circumstances a breakthrough in ending the penalties imposed under chapter VII soon does not look feasible.
Distrust and suspicion between the two countries are deeply rooted, and the way this dispute in Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations is handled will go a long way towards determining the nature of the society in each country and the Gulf’s security profile.
“I am concerned that progress could be threatened by the lack of confidence between the two countries and a lack of progress on outstanding issues,” Ban Ki-Moon said during his visit to the region last week.