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Iraq: Baghdad Pursues Charm Offensive Toward Cautious Kuwait

  • Charles Recknagel

Iraq has followed up a recent initiative to improve relations with Kuwait by announcing that it will return archives which it took during its occupation of the emirate in 1990-91. The announcement follows Baghdad's assuring Kuwait two months ago that it respects the emirate's independence and will work to create a positive climate between the two states. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at Iraq's charm offensive toward Kuwait, its motives, and how it is being received in the emirate.

Prague, 7 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For more than a decade since the Gulf War, relations between Iraq and Kuwait have been almost exclusively hostile.

The two states have no diplomatic ties and Kuwaiti memories of Iraq's seven-month occupation of the emirate in 1990-91 remain very bitter. Kuwaitis remember Iraq's annexation of the emirate vividly for its brutality, which included summary executions or arrest and torture for those suspected of resistance.

Today, the list of Kuwait's official grievances against Baghdad remains long despite ongoing Iraqi war reparations payments to Kuwait under the Gulf War peace accords.

The emirate continues to demand that Iraq explain the whereabouts of some 600 people, mostly Kuwaiti citizens, who it says disappeared during the occupation and are still being held in Iraqi jails.

At the same time, Kuwait wants Iraq to return national archives and other official documents which it says Baghdad stole along with millions of dollars' worth of cars and industrial equipment. Kuwait says Iraq took the documents to hide historical evidence that supports Kuwait's claims to be an independent and sovereign state.

Iraq has repeatedly denied it is holding Kuwaiti citizens and refused to cooperate with international efforts to account for them. Instead, Baghdad has demanded Kuwait account for more than 1,000 Iraqis it says are missing since Iraqi troops were driven from the emirate by an international coalition in 1991.

Over time, these disputes -- waged publicly at the UN and at Arab conferences -- have become a major obstacle to Iraqi efforts to build international support for ending the sanctions regime. The UN placed Baghdad under sanctions when it invaded Kuwait and lifting the sanctions remains tied to arms inspectors certifying Iraq has no mass destruction weapons with which to threaten its neighbors.

As it seeks to raise Arab support for removing the sanctions, Baghdad has increasingly tried this year to defuse its tensions with the emirate, notably at the Arab Summit in Beirut two months ago.

During the summit, Iraq announced that it had agreed with Kuwait that Baghdad would respect the emirate's independence, sovereignty, and security and that both states would try to build a more positive relationship. The Arab Summit unanimously endorsed the Iraqi-Kuwait accord, calling it "confirmation that Iraq would avoid anything that might cause a repetition of what happened in 1990."

Now, Iraq has followed up with a new overture to Kuwait. On 3 May, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Baghdad is ready to return the emirate's missing archives. Speaking to reporters in New York, Annan said, "If this is does happen, [it] will be a positive development and I hope it would also help improve relations in the region."

Ghanm Al-Najjar, an independent political analyst in Kuwait, says that the Iraqi initiative is receiving a cautious welcome in the emirate. He told our correspondent recently that the offer to return missing documents is seen as a positive step but that it remains to be seen how much material will actually be returned. "There has been an official reaction looking at it as a positive move. But some look at it with doubt, doubting the intentions [behind the offer], and as if it is only trying to divert pressure from Iraq. Mostly it is being looked at with cautious optimism."

Reuters quotes diplomatic sources at the UN as saying Iraq is prepared to return about 2 tons of material, which could include archives from the Foreign Ministry and other government offices as well as material from the Islamic and National museums. Arab League Secretary Amr Mussa said on 3 May that Iraq informed him it "will continue compiling all concerned documents so that they can be returned to Kuwait."

Al-Najjar says that an attitude of cautious optimism also characterizes Kuwait's response to the Iraqi charm offensive in general, including Baghdad's promise to recognize the emirate's independence.

Still, the analyst says that in line with the accord, Kuwait has called on its press to ease media attacks on Iraq. However, the call has yet to be embraced by many of Kuwait's privately-owned newspapers. "In Kuwait, you have the television and radio which are state owned, but the press is private and has a variety of views. The foreign minister asked newspapers to ease a little bit their campaign [of rhetoric] against Iraq, but each newspaper has its own way of reacting to that."

Najjar also says that, despite the recent Iraqi-Kuwait accord, most Kuwaitis feel real progress in improving relations can only come after Iraq fully cooperates in clarifying the fate of the 600 people taken from the emirate more than a decade ago: "There will be some improvement in certain areas [of Kuwaiti-Iraqi relations] but it will be very slow [because] the main thing is the issue of the missing and the detainees. If that is solved, then I think all other issues will be on the table."

Iraq invited Kuwait in January to send officials to inspect Iraqi jails to see whether the missing people are being held there. But Kuwait rejected the invitation as made in bad faith. The emirate continues to insist that the issue only be solved through the UN Security Council as part of the overall settlement of the Iraq crisis. The UN repeatedly faults Baghdad for not cooperating with its envoys on the missing persons question.

The Iraqi charm offensive toward Kuwait comes as Baghdad this year has stepped up diplomatic efforts to avoid becoming the next target in the U.S.-led war on terror. Washington has labeled Iraq part of an "axis of evil" and said the U.S. is prepared to act unilaterally, if necessary, to assure Baghdad cannot pursue mass destruction weapons programs. U.S. officials have said options range from increased political pressure on Baghdad to a military campaign or coup aimed at toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Amid those threats, Iraqi negotiators met with UN officials in New York last week to discuss the possible return of arms inspectors who have been banned from Iraq since late 1998. Both Annan and chief Iraqi negotiator Foreign Minister Naji Sabri later described the talks as "useful and frank" but announced no specific progress. Annan said that discussions should resume within a month.

So far, the Iraqi diplomatic efforts have shown no signs of altering Washington's conviction that Baghdad cannot be trusted so long as Saddam is in power. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said over the weekend that "U.S. policy is that, regardless of what the [UN arms] inspectors do, the people of Iraq and the people of the region would be better off with a different regime in Baghdad."

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