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Controversial canal again sparks dispute in Iraq

The Khor Abdullah maritime canal between Kuwait and Iraq has ignited a political crisis in Iraq amid accusations that Iraq's Cabinet gave away Iraqi territory.

BAGHDAD — Iraq is fighting a tide of dissent as its lawmakers accuse the government of handing over the Khor Abdullah border canal to Kuwait in an agreement concluded by the countries’ joint committees.

The Cabinet's decision sparked outrage Jan. 26, with some parliament members and Cabinet sources claiming the move was part of a secret deal by which Iraq handed over Khor Abdullah as a gift to Kuwait, resulting in a crisis that government clarifications have failed to end.

An estuary, Khor Abdullah is at the northern end of the Persian Gulf off the shores of the Kuwaiti islands of Bubiyan and Warbah and the Iraqi Al-Faw peninsula, extending to Khor al-Zubair in Umm Qasr port.

Disagreement over the rights to Bubiyan were a major reason Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Following Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the UN Security Council in May 1993 adopted Resolution 833, demarcating the Iraq-Kuwait borders. A committee was formed of experts from 16 countries, including some former Soviet republics, the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Venezuela, Pakistan and Morocco. The committee was charged with technical implementation of border demarcation between Iraq and Kuwait.

According to UN documents, that committee concluded that Khor Abdullah was a vital canal for both countries. Then a joint committee was formed to draft a bilateral agreement on the organization of navigation, and in 2013 the Iraqi Cabinet ratified the agreement and delivered it to the UN.

Over the past few years, Iraqi parliamentarians have strongly contested the Baghdad government’s approval of the agreement, which officially recognizes Kuwait’s right to establish Mubarak Al Kabeer port within the area shared by both nations, thus narrowing the ports on the Iraqi side.

“There’s a secret deal between the Iraqi and Kuwaiti governments concerning Khor Abdullah. The clarifications offered by the Iraqi government in this regard are not persuasive,” parliament member Aaliyah Nasif of the State of Law Coalition told Al-Monitor. She maintains Khor Abdullah was not included in Resolution 833, in legal or geographic terms.

According to Nasif, former foreign affairs and transportation ministers, as well as other former Cabinet members whom she refused to name, received bribes from the Kuwaiti government in return for ratifying the 2013 agreement.

Opponents of the deal contend that ceding Iraq’s right to Khor Abdullah compromises Iraqi sovereignty.

Meanwhile, Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Khalid Al-Jarallah said in a news conference that his country did not encroach on a "single inch" of Iraqi territory. He condemned the accusations, saying there had been no new developments or changes regarding the maritime border issue.

However, Dhafer al-Ajami, executive director of Gulf Monitoring Group and a Kuwaiti national, told NRT News that Khor Abdullah and Umm Qasr belong to Kuwait, arguing that Khor Abdullah was named after Sheikh Abdullah Bin Sabah of Kuwait, who died in 1813.

Some Iraqi officials blame former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Cabinet, which they say surrendered Iraqi territory to Kuwait.

Former Basra province parliament member Wael Abdul-Latif told Al-Monitor, “Maliki’s Cabinet made a mistake on three occasions. First, the former Cabinet accepted demarcation according to the [Security Council] resolution, handing over regional water and land in addition to the Umm Qasr port city."

Second, he said, Iraq's government went along with Kuwait's plans to build the Mubarak Al Kabeer port on the disputed Bubiyan Island, impeding Iraq's access and forcing it to use the Kuwaiti port. 

"The third mistake was the agreement signed by the former transportation minister dividing Khor Abdullah into two and narrowing Iraqi waterways adjacent to Iran and Kuwait," Abdul-Latif said, adding that he plans to file a lawsuit in maritime court disputing the legality of the Mubarak Al Kabeer port and the Khor Abdullah agreement.

As the agreement continues to fuel controversy, some maritime experts offered a different opinion than that of the politicians. One of those experts, Alaa Badran, told Al-Monitor the agreement does not impede Iraq, since it demarcates maritime borders so that navigation functions properly. Badran is secretary of the Marshes’ Committee of the Basra Provincial Council.

He further said that only part of the border adjacent to Umm Qasr and Bubiyan Island was taken under the agreement, adding that Kuwait took a "taluk" line similar to that of Iran's, and therefore the agreement does not affect the Iraqi side. "Taluk" is an Iraqi maritime term referring to the centerline in the main waterway available for maritime navigation at the point where the water level starts to decrease upon reaching land borders.

The Iraqi parliament's Foreign Relations Committee is seeking to resolve the situation to everyone's satisfaction. Committee member Mithal al-Allusi told Al-Monitor that Iraq maintains good relations with Kuwait, but Iraqis’ discontent with the government’s decisions could harm these relations in the future. When one country controls the lands and ports of another, he added, peace is unlikely.

Many observers believe Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Cabinet will probably make the same mistake made during Maliki’s rule: ceding the maritime canal to Kuwait to preserve diplomatic relations and achieve short-term interests at the expense of an angry Iraqi public.

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