Port row puts Kuwait-Iraq relations at post-war low

Iraq complains that Kuwait's new port will strangle its waterways, while Kuwait argues it will actually boost Iraqi trade
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The Independent Online

Two decades after Saddam Hussein sent his forces into Kuwait claiming theft of Iraqi oil and its enviable access to the sea, the same issues have sparked another bitter dispute that has taken relations between the two countries to another nadir.

Analysts say the spat has put ties between the two countries at their most strained since the aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War. It began in March this year, when Kuwait laid the foundation stone for Mubarak al-Kabir, a new megaport on the island of Bubiyan, a stone's throw from the Iraqi border. Just 12 miles upstream on the opposite side of the narrow Khor Abdullah waterway, Iraq has long planned its Grand Faw Port, which the country had hoped would become the main sea-trading hub for the northern Gulf.

Iraq complains that Kuwait's new port will strangle its waterways, kill its own prestige-port project before it is even born, interfere with navigation and cause a slump in business at its only existing deep-water port facility at Umm Qasr. Adding to this is simmering discontent in Iraq over the maritime border, a bone of contention since first demarcated by the British, leaving Iraq with just 35 miles of coastline.

Over recent weeks, the dispute has ramped up into a tense war of words, with calls for ambassadors to be expelled in both parliaments. There have been threats of violence against the port's construction team, a rocket attack on Kuwait's embassy in Baghdad and accusations that Kuwait is further taking advantage of Iraq's weakened state to plunder its oil fields. "This problem has depth," said Mustafa Alani, a security expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. "The hope was that, after Saddam Hussein fell, the relationship between the two countries would be repaired. But these familiar issues are once again appearing."

The location of Mubarak al-Kabir is particularly controversial. Iraq has long-contested Kuwait's ownership of the island of Bubiyan, laying claim to it in 1973 and amassing troops on the border. On several occasions in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein demanded Kuwait lease the island to Iraq. Dr Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a Gulf specialist at the London School of Economics, described the location as a "red-rag to a bull". He said: "It's a clear message to Iraq that Bubiyan is Kuwaiti territory."

While Kuwait's politicians argue that it is no business of Iraq's what they do within their own borders and contest that the port will, in fact, benefit its neighbour, Iraqi parliamentarians have reacted with fury. "Iraqis cannot understand the insistence of Kuwait to establish the Mubarak al-Kabir port," said Mithal al-Alusi, a prominent Iraqi politician. "Kuwait is a small country and it already has a number of ports on the sea. This new port will affect navigation and shipping lanes for Iraq." Iraq's Transport minister Hadi al-Amiri has contended that the construction of the port breaks UN Resolution 833, drawn up in 1993, which demands the two countries ensure each other's "right to navigational access". Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, claims he was never informed of the project during his visits to Kuwait, finding out about it only through "third parties".

The dispute took a new turn on 12 July when the Kuwaiti embassy in Baghdad was hit in a rocket attack, with one Katyusha rocket landing near its entrance, shattering windows. The embassy's Kuwaiti staff were evacuated and are working from their home country, where they will stay at least until the end of the month of Ramadan.

There is no proof the embassy was the intended target for the attack but the Iraqi Shia militia Kataeb Hezbollah have spoken out against the project, threatening a South Korean consortium working on the port.

In another indication of just how low relations have tumbled, Oday Awwad, a member of Iraq's energy committee, earlier this week said a team would be dispatched from the border to investigate whether Kuwait is slant-drilling, essentially stealing its neighbour's oil. Dr Coates-Ulrichsen described the accusation as "a very worrying new development".