By Robin Wigglesworth in Kuwait City
March 9 2010 02:00
The US may be eagerly awaiting the complete withdrawal of its troops from Iraq next year, but Kuwait views the departure date with trepidation, writes Robin Wigglesworth in Kuwait City .
While the emirate has been rebuilt since Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1990, the scars of occupation run deep and Kuwait's bitter disputes with its larger neighbour have never been resolved.
Most Kuwaitis accept that another invasion is unlikely, but they still regard Iraq with fear and suspicion. "When the US withdraws it will be a nerve-wracking time," says a western diplomat in Kuwait City. "Kuwait still sees Iraq as its number-one security threat."
Relations are strained partly because Kuwait insists that Iraq's government must pay $24bn (€17.6bn, £16bn) of outstanding reparations for the occupation. Iraq still transfers 5 per cent of its quarterly oil and gas revenue towards this bill. Nor have the two countries reached an agreement on the bilateral debt incurred by Iraq from its wealthy neighbour before 1990.
In January, Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, asked for the revision of the maritime border between the two countries. Kuwaitis saw Mr Maliki's request as a provocation, and perhaps a precursor to reviving the territorial demands that Saddam used to justify his invasion almost 20 years ago.
"There are a lot of people who are worried history will repeat itself. Saddam Hussein was not the first to say that Kuwait should be part of Iraq, and people fear he will not be the last," says Abdul Rahman Alyan, editorin-chief of Kuwait Times.
But some Kuwaitis advocate closer ties to a "new" Iraq. "We should try to be the gateway into Iraq . . . It's not a popular view in Kuwait, but we have to look towards the future, and not the past," says Jasem al-Sadoun, chairman of Alshall Investment. "Iraq will not continue to be a mess forever, and given its economic potential and oil reserves it could in the future be the largest Arab economy."
Iraq has taken one important step towards improving relations by sending its first ambassador to Kuwait since 1990.
Yet commerce cannot bridge the undercurrent of hostility, says Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert at the University of Vermont. "Kuwait is never going to forget the invasion, and most Iraqis do think that Kuwait should be part of their country."