After over 20 years of enmity, a few hours were all it took to put Iraq and Kuwait on friendly terms. But is it real? And how much does it have to do with Iraq’s desperate desire to make the upcoming Arab League summit a success?
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrived in Kuwait on March 14, together with a delegation of senior diplomats. And he returned to Baghdad far more quickly than expected and well before the date he was supposed to leave Kuwait. But this was not because his visit to Iraq’s neighbour and long term adversary had failed. Rather his early departure signalled a momentous success.
Over the past few years the relationship between Iraq and Kuwait has best been described as a tempestuous one. Any errant statements made by low ranking Iraqi or Kuwaiti officials would lead to the end of months of efforts to restore better relations. But it seems as though the recent visit by al-Maliki, only days before the Arab League Summit to be held in Baghdad, has put that relationship back on better, firmer ground.
'Most Kuwaiti citizens still remember the days of the invasion as if they only happened a few months ago'
Observers have been quick to declare the diplomatic romance between Iraq and Kuwait the result of the upcoming Arab League summit, to be held in Baghdad between March 27-29. It is the first such meeting of members of the Arab League to be held in Baghdad in over two decades and after delays and postponements, Baghdad is keen to make a success of it.
“The timing of the visit [to Kuwait] and the positive results achieved are all about supporting the Arab summit in Baghdad,” independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, said. “Resolving Iraq’s conflicts with Kuwait will open a new page in the relations between the two countries. And Kuwait may well play a key role in opening up Iraq’s access to the Gulf Cooperation Council,” Othman speculated.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, or the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf) is a political and economic alliance of Arab states that border on the Persian Gulf. Iraq has some ties with the GCC but these are mainly in the areas of health, sport and culture. If ties with members states improve – as they seem to be doing, as witnessed by recent developments with Saudi Arabia and now Kuwait – Iraq is expected to play more of a role in the GCC.
The first major success in Iraq-Kuwaiti relations that Iraqi officials noted was around demands for compensation made by Kuwait Airlines. The Kuwaitis have been demanding compensation ever since Saddam Hussein invaded that nation in the 1990s and destroyed or seized most of Kuwait Airlines’ assets.
A European court decision that banned Iraqi Airways from buying new planes or landing in Europe had stymied Iraq’s air transport. At one stage an Iraqi airways plane was confiscated. But last week the Iraqis agreed to pay compensation to, and make investments in, Kuwait’s air transport sector to the tune of US$500 million.
The agreement means that now Iraqi planes can access western airports without danger of confiscation or being denied landing rights.
But this is only one issue among many that stir up tensions between the two countries. Others date back decades.
For example, in the 1930s Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Saeed, wanted Kuwait to join a political union with Iraq because he believed Kuwait was actually an integral part of his own country. In the 1960s, Abdul-Karim Qasim, the first Prime Minister of a republican Iraq, expressed similar desires. And even today, it seems that many Iraqis continue to believe that Kuwait is the 19th province of Iraq.
The most overt expression of these beliefs came in August 1990 when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait – the acts of murder, robbery, assault and kidnapping still live on in the Kuwaiti people’s memories.
And despite an increasing amount of rhetoric around the fact that Iraq wants to build a better relationship with Kuwait, there is also no doubt that successive Iraqi governments have paid a high price for these kinds of policies.
But now it seems al-Maliki has made real progress in this area. As a government spokesperson said, “as opposed to previous visits, this meeting has achieved real, practical results”.
In fact, al-Maliki’s progress with Kuwait was so rare that even his opponents in the mostly troubled and squabbling Iraqi government praised it – and that was even though the finer details of agreements with the Kuwaitis, that were under discussion, were not to be revealed to all members of parliament.
“The visit is a leap forward in the relationship with Kuwait,” MP Qutaiba al-Jibouri, of opposition Iraqiya bloc breakaway party, the White Bloc, told NIQASH.
In 1991, after Iraq had been forced to withdraw from Kuwait, the United Nations Compensation Commission, which was “created in 1991 to process claims and pay compensation for losses suffered as a direct result of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait”, required Iraq to place 5 percent of its earnings into a reparations fund which would then be paid out to claimants against it. So far, around US$34 billion has been paid out – around US$25 billion of the latter went to Kuwait and there is still a further US$18 billion required by that country.
Iraq also owes Kuwait money it borrowed to finance its war with Iran: around US$14 billion.
And there are other issues still pending. Hundreds of people missing after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait are still unaccounted for and the two governments have promised to try and find out exactly what happened to them. Additionally Kuwait’s national archives – records of the royal court and the government – were taken during the 1990 invasion; they’re still missing too.
The Kuwaitis and Iraqis have also disagreed about their borders, which feature several oil fields. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 833 in 1993 – this said that the borders should go back to those previously agreed upon by the two nations in a 1963 agreement. However Iraq has debated this resolution.
Some of the conflicts between the two countries are more recent: they include disagreements over the Mubarak al-Kabir Port, which is located near the border between Kuwait and Iraq. The news agency Associated Press wrote that Iraqis thought this was Kuwait’s way of “trying to strangle Iraq's shipping channels and scuttle a planned Iraqi port project”.
Iraq’s Minister of Transport Hadi al-Amiri told NIQASH this week that the port is just one of the issues set to be resolved by a joint committee formed by the two countries. “We have already discussed the Mubarak al-Kabir Port with the Kuwaitis and the joint committee will discuss that further after the Arab League Summit,” he said.
The Iraqi government has confirmed that Kuwait will participate in the summit with a diplomatic delegation led by the Emir, or ruler, of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah. If all goes according to plan, the Kuwaiti ruler will be the highest level Kuwaiti to visit Iraq since 1989; only a few months later, Saddam Hussein shocked the world by invading Kuwait.
Analysts say that Kuwait’s participation should give yet another boost to Iraq’s recent efforts to restore its role among fellow Arab nations, and with the Gulf states in particular.
“Kuwait could be the new starting point for Iraq - this could open the doors for Iraq to reach out to the Arab Gulf countries,” MP Abdul Salam al-Maliki, a member of Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, told NIQASH. “Kuwait could play an important role in bringing Iraq closer to Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, countries whose relations with Iraq have been marred by conflict.”
The fact that Iraq was trying so hard to resolve said conflicts “sends a strong message to the Gulf States that Iraq is eager to achieve peace,” al-Maliki said, “and that Iraq wants to put the grudges of the past behind it, especially those grudges formed during the regime of Saddam Hussein.”
bad memories, political misconceptions
While the politicians appear to be succeeding in re-building the troubled relationship between Iraq and Kuwait, it may well prove to be more difficult for the average man and woman on the street in both countries.
Two decades have passed since Iraq invaded Kuwait but the memory of what happened then is still well and truly alive there. Stories about the killings and rapes committed by Iraqis in Kuwait are still told, and many of them feature on television, in plays or in other forms of popular culture.
'As Iraqis we need ...to build up a new political culture that respects the sovereignty of existing nations'
“Most Kuwaiti citizens still remember the days of the invasion as if they only happened a few months ago,” Kuwaiti journalists told NIQASH. “The Kuwaiti people do not trust Iraq and it will be difficult to rebuild that trust.”
On the other side of the border, at street level, it also seems that a lot of Iraqis see the situation differently: many of them still believe that Kuwait is part of Iraq and that sooner or later, it will become part of Iraq again. And even if they don’t believe this, there are still a significant amount of hard feelings. Reading comments on Facebook or other forums and hearing debate and discussion on the subject, it appears that many Iraqis still believe Kuwait caused “Iraq’s tragedy”.
By this, they mean that because the US military were able to launch their 2003 invasion of Iraq through Kuwait, says that Kuwait is partially to blame for the past nine years. Others believe that Kuwait’s claims for financial compensation are “starving” the Iraqi people and that Kuwait is blackmailing Iraq.
Many Iraqis still speak of the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein with pride and express their admiration for its ability to occupy Kuwait City in one day.
“But these are misconceptions,” Mohammed Yas, a professor of political science, noted. “These kinds of misconceptions allowed the former regime to control the Iraqi people.”
“It is hard to forget the bad memories,” he concluded. “But as Iraqis we need a new generation to build up a new political culture that respects the sovereignty of existing nations and puts the past behind us.”