Iraqi farmers breach the lost 'motherland': Saddam tests US nerve with massive cross-border protests

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The Independent Online
THEY emerged in their hundreds from the clouds of dust engulfing the deserted al-Abdali customs post on the once busy Basra-Kuwait highway. Young and old, men and women, they carried portraits of President Saddam Hussein, or Iraqi flags which they planted on mounds that used to be on Iraqi territory.

It is five months since the United Nations, to the dismay of the area's Iraqi farmers and sharecroppers, gave this desert to the Kuwaitis.

The mainly Palestinian and Pakistani workers digging a 10ft-deep defensive ditch on the Kuwaiti side of the new border have grown accustomed to Iraqi voices cursing the private parts of their mothers, but the sticks and stones that the Iraqi farmers attacked them with last Saturday was a new experience.

Iraq lost about 100 farms and as many precious water wells, and more than 1,000 residents of Umm Qasr, the country's only port, were redefined as living in Kuwait when the UN Boundary Commission, with its satellite-aided maps, gave the emirate a 600-metre-wide strip of land along the 200km-long frontier.

The seeds of dispute were sown in 1922, when the British negotiator of the Ottoman Empire's dismemberment, Sir Percy Cox, drew an arbitrary line on the map that left Iraq almost landlocked.

Western diplomats believe that the farmers would not have crossed the new border without the approval of Saddam Hussein, and that his motive is to test President Bill Clinton's resolve. 'Saddam thinks that President Clinton is reluctant to commit American troops to any new military adventures, especially if there is no direct threat to United States interests,' one diplomat said.

Whatever the motive, the effect was the creation of fear and confusion in Kuwait. For three hours the Iraqis, accompanied by reporters from Baghdad, had the border area to themselves. The UN Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission was powerless to stop them. Its spokesman, Abdellattif Kabbaj, told the crowd that their action was a violation of the border, but he declined to back Kuwait's charge that it was an 'act of aggression'.

The protest took place as Kuwait and the US began week-long air manoeuvres, and while Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, was in New York seeking an easing of the UN sanctions imposed after Iraq's occupation of the emirate in 1990.

The day after the farmers' incursion, editorials in Iraq's state-controlled newspapers vowed to 'liberate Kuwait al- mustaamara (occupied territory)', and predicted 'its return to the mother homeland'.

After a month-long survey of the area, a UN land commission last week recommended to the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, that the farmers should be compensated, despite the fact that Baghdad rejecte such an offer from Kuwait soon after the new borders were drawn in May.

In order to maximise the political dividends, Baath party commissars in the area do not miss a chance to provoke the farmers' anger. Two weeks ago, the contractors digging the last section of the security ditch hit a water well, and the UN mission told all parties that the work should stop pending further examination.

The farmers had the impression that digging would not start again until compensation had been paid, but 'somehow the word did not reach the contractors', a Western diplomatic source said. 'When they started work again, Saddam's commissars were quick to spread an exaggerated version of the news.' Three days later, 600 farmers, mainly women and children, were provided with transport to cross the borders.

Western diplomats say that President Saddam wants to emulate the 'green march' of King Hassan of Morocco, who dispatched thousands of his people to the disputed western Sahara. The Iraqi leader, they claim, is aiming for a massive march by unarmed civilians across the borders of what he still calls the 19th province.

(Photograph omitted)