Oil, power and ports: Iraq and Kuwait bicker over border areas, locals protest

According to lawmakers, the border area between Kuwait and Iraq should no longer be disputed territory. However Iraqi locals see it differently and accuse Kuwait of blocking their waterways, stealing their oil and teaching their children untruths about the area.

As dusk falls along the southern borders that Iraq shares with Kuwait, the lights of the Kuwaitis mining gas and oil in the region begin to glow. But the pretty scenery hides a spot with a particularly troubled history and, it seems, a troubled future.

The area, about 40 kilometres west of Basra, was the subject of United Nations Security Council Resolution 833, adopted in 1993, which precisely marked the previous borders between Iraq and Kuwait following a ceasefire agreement after Iraq’s invasion of its neighbour. In 2004 the Kuwaiti authorities built a multi-million dollar metal barrier along the border that stretches over 200 kilometres.

The resolution saw a significant amount of land, hosting both oil wells and agriculture such as tomato farms, passed from Iraq to Kuwait, as well as the establishment of a wide zone of neutrality between the two countries. Various issues are still disputed and Basra’s citizenry has also complained that the Kuwaitis took advantage of Iraq’s internal turmoil, following the 2003 US-led invasion of their country, to exploit resources on the shared border.

A high ranking official in the Safwan area, where the border is, told NIQASH that locals are not happy with either the Kuwaitis or the Iraqi federal government. They describe “the unjust demarcation of borders as well as their government’s reluctance to put an end to this injustice,” said the official, who had had some of his own land confiscated when the new border was marked out.

Another major issue for Basra citizens was the major port facility that Kuwait was planning to build. Iraqis feared that the Mubarak al-Kabir Port was Kuwait’s way of “trying to strangle Iraq's shipping channels and scuttle a planned Iraqi port project,” news agency Associated Press wrote recently. “In response, the Kuwaitis claim their project could benefit the whole region and accuse Iraqi opponents of risking years of slowly improved relations.”

Earlier in August, Iraqi protestors gathered near the border and tried to remove signs and concrete barriers. However Kuwaiti military did not allow them to cross the border. Unconfirmed reports that Kuwait is planning to build a nuclear reactor on one of the small islands in the same border area has also caused tensions, with Iraqi concerns about agriculture and shipping in the area.

On the whole, many Iraqis who lived in the area had concerns about the Kuwaiti attitude toward the disputed border areas. They claimed that Kuwaitis were continuing to teach their children that the border area actually extended beyond the current lines, right up to Jabal Sanam which lies over eight kilometres beyond Safwan, and inside Iraq.

Nabil Ahmad al-Amir, an advisor to the Basra governor, believed that not enough was being done to resolve what Basra locals saw as unjust. Action groups had written to the central government in Baghdad. “But politicians in Baghdad are too busy with their own problems,” he complained.

Iraqis have also complained that Kuwaitis are “stealing” Iraqi oil in border areas by using deviated or directional drilling techniques that allow them to suck oil out of wells across the border, so to speak. This is nothing new; in fact this accusation was one of the reasons that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gave for invading Kuwait in 1990.

Officials from the local Basra government say they have proof of the theft and that they have informed Baghdad. For example, pressure in some oil reservoirs has dropped significantly and the Iraqis believe this is because of Kuwaiti’s drilling into the same reservoirs.

Recently Kuwait's ambassador to Baghdad, Ali al-Mu'men denied Iraqi allegations like these and instead, accused Iraqi companies of extracting oil from Kuwaiti oil reserves.

Farid Khalid, who heads the energy committee of the Basra provincial council, said the local authorities felt that the federal government had made a mistake by not complaining about these issues earlier.

“No oil work was done on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti-Iranian borders by the Iraqi government for years which is why the oil reserves were open for looting,” he explained his point of view. And one of the questions many locals are asking is why the Iraqi government has not been more enthusiastic about developing, and investing in, these border areas. “Kuwaitis are now digging to get the biggest share of oil,” one official in the area told NIQASH. “Are there political reasons stopping the government from investment in these areas?” he asked.