Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for May 19th, 2011

Kuwait Port Project Makes Waves in Iraqi Politics

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 19 May 2011 12:17

With the month-long parliamentary holiday well underway Iraqi politics has lost some of its momentum. Despite rumours about imminent “emergency sessions”, a decision on the security ministries still seems some way off.

Meanwhile, a decision by the Kuwaiti government to press ahead with a project to build a grand new port on the Bubyan Island, to be named Mubarak Port, appears to be what occupies the minds of most Iraqi politicians these days. Since the project entered the public debate a short while ago, politicians of all stripes have rushed to condemn it.

Bubyan is the territory marked as “Kuwait” on the above map

It is interesting that many protests against the project are not focused on the territorial status of the Bubyan Island as such, despite the fact that Iraq claimed ownership of the island for much of the twentieth century and that it featured as one among several elements in the official Iraqi justification for invading Kuwait in 1990. Rather, several of the arguments against the port are of a practical nature. Above all, commentators tend to focus on the fact that if Kuwait finishes its port project ahead of Iraq’s own scheme of a great new harbour at neighbouring Fao south of Basra, Iraqi commerce will suffer. Some even predict that the Fao project will be abandoned altogether as a consequence of the Kuwaiti initiative.

As a result of this focus, the protests may perhaps turn out to be short-lived: Even some of the protestors admit that the Iraqi government itself must shoulder some responsibility for having procrastinated with building port facilities in a more timely fashion at Fao, which would have enjoyed unrivalled access to the Gulf and altogether avoided the problems of the Khor Abdallah – the sound shared with Kuwait in which Bubyan lies and which leads to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

It should still be noted that lingering Iraqi claims to Bubyan are not entirely gone, despite the UN demarcation subsequent to the Gulf War. Some legal experts contend that UN boundary commission went too far in settling the maritime border (in addition to the land border), and by using the median of the Khor Abdallah sound instead of the thalweg (the line that follows the natural riverbed). In a recent interview, Tariq Harb – a legal adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – went as far as claiming that the UN demarcation under UNSC 833 was illegitimate or at least disputable given the alleged absence of any Iraqis on the border commission. This seems to misstate the case somewhat, since the Iraqi government was indeed represented through Riyad al-Qaysi and eventually accepted the demarcation (in 1994). Only a more fundamental challenge by the current Iraqi government relating to the very legitimacy of the pre-2003 Baathist government as a representative of Iraq in international affairs would be able to question the post-1991 settlement more generally, but there would still remain difficulties in finding historical arguments for treating the Bubyan (and the second disputed island of Warba) different from the rest of Kuwait.

For now, perhaps the most interesting result of the Kuwaiti port project  is the creation of a new alliance in the Iraqi parliament that brings together people who usually stand rather far apart but who now all agree to watch the issue of the Kuwaiti port scheme closely. A new parliamentary “formation” (tajammu, thus apparently not a bloc or kutla) was declared Wednesday, with members mainly from the breakaway faction of Iraqiyya known as White Iraqiyya (Aliya Nusayf, Aziz al-Mayahi and Kazim al-Shammari),  Iraqiyya itself (Attab al-Duri, Qusay al-Abbadi and Hasan al-Hamdani), Sadrists (Asma al-Musawi , Hayfa al-Atwani and Rafi Abd al-Jabbar) plus Izzat Shabandar (an ex-Iraqiyya member who is now a member of State of Law).

So far, of course, this is a small-sized movement and mostly a curiosity. It is probably still a phenomenon that the political leadership needs to take seriously as they move ahead on more important issues like the security ministries and the question of a post-2011 US military presence. It is noteworthy that this alliance brings together both Sadrists and Iraqiyya members (Duri) that have been publicly critical about a post-2011 American presence and if Maliki wants to challenge them on this issue he will need to do more important things than bickering over vice-presidencies. The latter holds true also for the Salih al-Mutlak faction of Iraqiyya which lately has spent time challenging the newly elected vice-president for State of Law, Khudayr al-Khuzai! (According to the law on the deputy presidents, only the president himself has an explicit right to initiate a process of sacking his deputies – parliament can only summon them to question them.) What the vice-presidential vote demonstrated was that Maliki’s dream of a “political majority” is still a long way off – in this case it was threatened through opposition from both Sadrists and ISCI of his own, all-Shiite National Alliance. The latter may well opt to join the Sadrists in opposing any SOFA extension, making it doubly important for Maliki to bring Iraqiyya firmly over on his side if he does indeed harbour a desire to obtain a parliamentary majority for any kind of prolonged US presence beyond 2011.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 3 Comments »