66. Memorandum From Robert B. Elwood of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research to the Director of the Office of Near Eastern Affairs (Strong)0


  • Iraqi Claim to Kuwait

In response to an urgent telephone request from Mr. Blackiston we are forwarding a brief account of the background of Iraq’s assertion of sovereignty over Kuwait.

Qasim Announcement

Prime Minister Qasim of Iraq in a press conference June 25 asserted old Iraqi claims to Kuwaiti territory and offered to “liberate” the inhabitants of Kuwait. The statement as read over Baghdad Radio referred to [Page 160] Kuwait several times as “an indivisible part of Iraq” and asserted, “… it is the Iraqi Republic and no one else which signs agreements for Kuwait.” He further announced the intent to issue a Republican Decree appointing the Shaykh of Kuwait qa’ immaqam (district or sub-provincial governor) under the Iraqi province of Basra. Qasim’s move was obviously in response to the termination on June 19 of an Anglo-Kuwaiti treaty,1 and the assumption by the Shaykh of the full conduct of Kuwaiti foreign affairs. Qasim’s message to the Kuwaiti ruler on that occasion was grudging to the point of rudeness. Kuwaitis, although annoyed by the Iraqi attitude, have publicly ignored the incident. The UK promptly reaffirmed its continued readiness to assist Kuwait on request, by force if necessary.2

Background of Kuwait Ruling House

Ancestors of the al-Subah family, the ruling dynasty of Kuwait, emigrated from central Saudi Arabia (Najd province) in the 17th century and first settled at Umm Qasr (now the site of a proposed Iraqi port development, access to which has been at issue for some time between Iraq and Kuwait). Driven from this location by the Turks, the family established itself at Kuwait in the 18th century. From then until World War I, these minor rulers shifted allegiance according to the exigencies of local dynastic wars and pressures by larger powers.

In the later years of the 18th century, the family and town were under Persian suzerainty, and Kuwait rivalled Basra as a port for the interior of Mesopotamia up to Damascus. However, in 1829 the then ruler had to acknowledge the suzerainty of Turkey and pay tribute to the Ottoman Porte. In return for a subsidy, the Kuwaiti navy protected the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab in the name of the Porte. In 1869–70, the Kuwaiti Ruler joined energetic Turkish Sultan Midhat Pasha in a military campaign into Arabia that conquered al-Hasa province, which, for a time, was governed from Basra as the Turkish province of Najd. Thereafter, the Shaykh of Kuwait formally accepted the Turkish definition of his position and was accepted by the Porte as de jure ruler of Kuwait.

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British Interest and Kuwaiti Independence

By 1897, the then Shaykh of Kuwait was paying little attention to his nominal superiors in Basra. At this time, Kuwait was being considered as the terminus of the proposed Berlin-Baghdad Railway. The UK, which had not formally accepted the Ottoman right to speak for Kuwait, therefore interested itself, and the English Resident at Bushire, Col. Meade, was authorized by London to contact the Shaykh of Kuwait directly. The Shaykh was interested not only in asserting his independence vis-à-vis Turkey, but also in British help with the perennial skirmishing going on since 1895 between himself and the Rashidi family, head of the powerful Shammar tribe in Saudi Arabia, and later with their conqueror, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud.

On January 23, 1899, therefore, the Kuwaiti Shaykh agreed not to let or cede any part of his territory to other governments or subjects of governments other than England, and to receive no representatives of foreign powers without British authorization. In return, the Shaykh received an annual subsidy and British and Indian protection as needed against the Wahhabi incursions from Saudi Arabia. This is the treaty just denounced by the Iraqi government.3 From 1903, a British Political Resident was established in Kuwait; a second treaty with the UK was signed in 1907.

On July 29, 1913, agreement was reached between the UK and Turkey, by which the boundaries of Kuwait were defined, and its status was established as that of an autonomous qadha (sub-province). At the same time, the treaty relationship with the UK was confirmed by Turkey, and Turkish representation was to be permitted at Kuwait. The outbreak of World War I prevented ratification of this instrument. Instead, England declared Kuwait to be an independent kingdom under British protection. On December 26, 1915, King Ibn Sa’ud concluded an agreement with the Shaykh and the UK by which the Kuwait-Saudi boundaries were defined (they have never been demarcated), and any Saudi claims to the territory of Kuwait were conceded.

Previous Iraqi Claims to Kuwait

During the First World War and subsequent British Mandate over Iraq, Iraqi relations with Kuwait were not a problem. After Iraq achieved independence in 1932, however, anti-British Iraqi nationalists occasionally agitated an Iraqi claim to the territory of Kuwait based on the old Ottoman jurisdiction. In 1937, Iraq extended its protection to Kuwait in a minor row with Saudi Arabia. In 1938, Iraq’s second ruler, the young King Ghazi, loudly demanded annexation of Kuwait and broadcast [Page 162] Iraq’s claims on Baghdad radio. In that year, the Iraqi government invited Kuwaiti students to study in Baghdad at the Iraqi government’s expense, a move which drew both Kuwaiti and British objections. Early in 1939, when a legislative council in Kuwait was preparing a new constitution which was being so drafted as to guarantee the continuance of special British treaty rights, anti-British riots broke out in Kuwait objecting to the constitution and demanding, among other things, union with Iraq. The disturbance was short-lived, although serious enough to require application of emergency law in Kuwait. Baghdad press and radio, as well as the nationalist Arab Office in Damascus, backed the Kuwaiti dissidents, and there were rumors of Iraqi complicity in rousing the demonstrations. The furor quieted somewhat following the death of King Ghazi in an automobile accident in April 1939.

Thereafter, the Iraqi government tacitly accepted the status quo. For the last several years of the monarchy, the government of Nuri al-Sa’id was at pains to court good relations with the Kuwaiti ruling family, welcomed its members’ frequent visits to relatives and properties in the Basra area, and discussed off-and-on the provision to Kuwait of sweet water from the Shatt al-Arab.

However, in 1958, following the uniting of Iraq and Jordan in the short-lived Arab Union, Nuri al-Sa’id again revived the claim. This was not a forceful public assertion, but rather a series of quiet diplomatic démarches in an attempt to persuade the Kuwaiti Ruler and the UK of the desirability of Kuwaiti adherence to the new Union. Nuri had in mind popularizing the Union with the Iraqi public through the acquisition of Kuwaiti wealth to offset the budgetary drain of Jordan, and at the same time hoped to create a psychology of momentum toward joining the Baghdad-based rather than the Cairo-Damascus union. Neither the Kuwaitis nor the UK evinced any interest, and the suggestion did not receive a great deal of publicity at the time. It was still being advanced by the Iraqi monarchy up to the time of the July 1958 revolution.

The Qasim regime is therefore advancing an old Iraqi claim, but one that has not in the past received much support from other Arab states and has had no recognition from the world at large. Aside from Qasim’s extreme sensitivity to any manifestation of continued foreign presence in the Arab area, he is probably motivated by his current irritation with the UK over the stalled renegotiation of the IPC concession.4 Qasim probably also sees in this a potentially popular issue at a time when popular enthusiasm for his regime is waning at home.5

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 686D.87/6–2661. Unclassified. Drafted by Morehouse. Elwood was the Director of the Office of Research and Analysis for the Middle East.
  2. On June 19, the Ruler of Kuwait and the U.K. Political Resident, Persian Gulf, Sir William Luce, signed letters terminating the Anglo-Kuwaiti Treaty of 1899, thereby providing for Kuwaiti independence. For text, see Exchange of Notes Regarding Relations Between the United Kingdom and Kuwait, 19th June 1961, British and Foreign State Papers, vol. 166, pp. 112–113.
  3. On June 26, the Iraqi Government issued a note to the Diplomatic Corps in Baghdad conveying a memorandum summarizing Iraq’s position with regard to the U.K.-Kuwaiti agreement of June 19, which the Iraqi Government considered to be contrary to its assertion that “Kuwait was and still is an indivisible part of Iraq.” The text of the note and the attached memorandum, delivered to the Embassy in Baghdad, were transmitted to the Department in despatch 1260 from Baghdad, June 27. (Department of State, Central Files, 686D.87/6–2761)
  4. Agreement between Great Britain and Kuwait providing for non-cession of territory within the Sheikdom, 23rd January 1899; for text, see British and Foreign State Papers, vol. 166, pp. 112–113.
  5. Documentation is in Department of State, Central File 887.2553.
  6. A handwritten note on the source text, presumably by Charlotte Morehouse, reads: “In my 4 years, there was never any deep Iraqi feeling re Kuwait—as there was for example on such issues as Palestine or anti-UK issues.”