Two decades on, Kuwait seeks better Iraq ties

A landmark visit to Baghdad last week by Kuwait's prime minister is seen by many Kuwaitis as a good sign of improving relations, 20 years after Iraq's invasion of its tiny, oil-rich neighbour.

"The visit of Sheikh Nasser (Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah) to Iraq was indeed historical," the liberal Al-Jarida newspaper said in a front-page editorial on Friday.

"Twenty years after Operation Desert Storm was launched to liberate Kuwait... he proves that the real storm that should blow over the two neighbouring nations is that of cooperation and mutual respect," the daily said.

Wednesday's visit to Iraq was the first by a Kuwaiti premier since 1989, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Gulf War.

Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. On January 17, 1991, a US-led multi-national coalition force launched Operation Desert Storm, a 40-day war that pounded Saddam's forces out of the wealthy emirate.

Mahmud Ali still remembers the devastation of the seven months of Iraqi occupation and the killing of around 2,000 civilians.

"The memories of destruction caused by Saddam Hussein's troops on our small country have not completely disappeared," Ali, a private sector employee in his 40s, told AFP at a local mall.

But 20 years later, he says life must go on.

"That was done by Saddam and he is gone, so it's better for both of our nations to establish strong ties and cooperate," said Ali, echoing a common Kuwaiti sentiment.

Saddam was toppled by the 2003 US-led invasion, and later tried and executed.

Before leaving Kuwait, Iraqi forces torched more than 700 oil wells, took several thousand Kuwaiti and other civilians prisoner and looted the wealthy emirate.

Most of the prisoners were freed after the war, but just over 600 are still missing and believed dead. The remains of about half have been found, and the search is still on for the rest.

"What happened to Kuwait on August 2, 1990 was not a simple catastrophe but a horrible shock still affecting some Kuwaitis," independent Shiite MP Faisal al-Duwaisan told AFP.

He said the scars "would need some time to rid because the wounds were too deep."

But ties, he said, are moving in the right direction, witnessed by last week's visit by the premier.

"It was a timely visit, especially as we need to coordinate efforts with brotherly Iraq to erase scepticism impacting our ties, especially on the popular level," Duwaisan said.

The 2003 US-led invasion, which removed Saddam and was launched from Kuwait, paved the way for improving ties.

Kuwait reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2005, and Iraq reciprocated last year.

Ties have been on the mend ever since, but not without challenges.

Two day's before Sheikh Nasser's visit, a Kuwaiti coast guard was shot dead, apparently by Iraqi fishermen who had allegedly intruded into the emirate's territorial waters, rekindling Kuwaiti anger and eroding trust.

Islamist opposition MP Waleed al-Tabtabai wondered why the visit went ahead at a time "when the blood of the martyr (coast guard) was not even dry."

But Sheikh Nasser's visit was considered a great success after both sides agreed to step up efforts to resolve issues dating from the invasion.

They formed a senior committee, headed by the foreign ministers, to hammer out differences.

"I believe ties will get much stronger as Kuwait is now focusing on boosting economic interests. The only opposition to normalisation of ties comes from some politicians on both sides," said political analyst Shamlan Al Issa.

At the end of the premier's visit, Kuwait said it is interested in investing more in Iraqi infrastructure projects, adding to the "billions of dollars" already invested in airports, hotels and telecoms in the north and south.

In August, the neighbours agreed in principle to regulate production from rich border oilfields that were at the centre of their war.

Iraq still pays five percent of its oil sales into a reparations fund for Kuwait, which has so far received ê13 billion, and demands another ê22 billion.

Kuwait also wants Iraq to return looted property, and explain the fate of hundreds of missing Kuwaitis.

In addition, Kuwait wants Iraq to remove farms on their borders near Umm Qasr and allow a proper drawing of the UN-demarcated frontier. The maritime borders have not been demarcated.

On top of war reparations, Baghdad also owes Kuwait about ê16 billion in debt, which the emirate promised to "considerably cut."

"There are no real problems between Iraq and Kuwait except some politicians who are fighting against good ties," said Issa.

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