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213. Intelligence Note Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1

RNAN–20

IRAQ–KUWAIT: TWENTIETH CENTURY GEOPOLITICS

Although both sides are seeking to play down their current border dispute, Iraq does not appear inclined to drop its demand for a substantial chunk of Kuwaiti territory.

Iraqi Demands: “Gunboat Diplomacy.” Although Iraq has periodically pressed its claim to all of Kuwait, based on old Ottoman boundaries, the present dispute arises from a more immediate concern, territorial security. Convinced that its major port of Basrah, located some 60 miles upstream from the mouth of the Shatt al ’Arab River, is vulnerable to Iran, the Iraqis have been building up the port of Umm Qasr as their major naval facility and probably the future site of a new deep-water oil terminal as well. Umm Qasr, which is the only practical alternative to Basrah as a major port, lies north of Kuwait on an estuary. Ships entering this estuary must pass two Kuwaiti islands, Warbah and Bubiyan. In Iraqi eyes, these islands and the adjacent mainland must be under Iraqi control. The situation reached a crisis on March 20 when Iraq seized a Kuwaiti police post at al Samitah and occupied some six to ten square miles of Kuwaiti territory.

Kuwait Is Running Scared. Kuwait’s minuscule army is no match for Iraq’s Soviet-equipped forces. Traditionally, the Kuwaitis have sought security by making generous loans to other Arab states, particularly radicals, to assure that they would oppose Iraqi designs on Kuwait. To the extent that this policy worked, the Kuwaitis avoided having to rely for security on such pariahs as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the US, or the UK, which would have aroused the condemnation of Arab radicals, including the large Palestinian segment of Kuwait’s own population. In the present crisis, however, the Kuwaitis are worried that other Arab support will not deter the Iraqis. Jordan has offered assistance, but the Kuwaitis are loathe to accept it. The Saudis seem to have been looking the other way when the Kuwaitis approached them, and Iran does not seem anxious to get involved. Kuwaiti overtures to the US, in the context of arms purchases and security assistance, also reflect their alarm. Kuwait has offered to lease the islands to Iraq, but the offer has been refused. Were Kuwait to lose the islands entirely, it would also lose ex[Page 620]tensive offshore territory, including the rights to any oil deposits which might be found there.

Talk Now, Take Later. Since the March 20 shootout, the Iraqis have pulled back somewhat and indicated that they are willing to talk quietly with the Kuwaitis on a “compromise.” Iraqi Foreign Minister ’Abd al Baqi visited Kuwait in early April to discuss the issue. The Arab League has shown interest in mediating the dispute, and Yasir ’Arafat has also attempted to mediate, probably out of a desire to refurbish his image as a man of reason after being upstaged in recent months by Salah Khalaf of the Black September Organization (BSO). He may also have hoped that his credit in Baghdad was sufficient to secure some moderation of the Iraqi position, in return for which the Kuwaiti Government might be duly appreciative to Fatah. The Kuwaitis for their part are willing to talk but see little area for compromise. As a precautionary measure they have deployed several hundred troops to the islands.

Despite all the talk, however, Iraq seems totally unwilling to back down on its intention to get sovereignty over the two islands. Three Soviet warships currently visiting Iraq no doubt add backbone to its resolve and further alarm Kuwait, although the Soviets do not appear to be participants in what is essentially a local issue. Still, if all negotiations fail and Iraq does seize the islands, the dispute could erupt into a major regional crisis.2

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 32–1 IRAQ–KUW. Secret; No Foreign Dissem. Drafted by David E. Long (INR/NEA), cleared by Curtis F. Jones (INR/NEA), and approved by David E. Mark (INR/NEA).
  2. Telegram 1463 from Kuwait, May 1, reported that Iraqi-Kuwaiti negotiations had failed, since Iraq persisted in its territorial claims. (Ibid.) According to telegram 450 from Baghdad, August 26, following the abortive Iraqi coup, Saddam Hussein acknowledged the attack on Kuwait was a mistake, and a State visit to Iraq by the Kuwaiti Prime Minister followed. (Ibid., Central Foreign Policy Files, [no film number])