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Iraq/Kuwait: Two Countries Divided By Earthworks, Electrified Barbed Wire

  • Ron Synovitz

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, there were few markers in the desert to show the exact border between the two countries. But since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the United Nations has erected a 217-kilometer-long, electrified, barbed-wire fence and trenches that mark a 15-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone. RFE/RL reports on the situation along the Iraq-Kuwait border.

Iraq-Kuwait border, 3 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Colonel Nabeel Faraj, the commander of operations for Kuwait's northern border police, gazes across an electrified barbed-wire fence that separates his country from Iraq.

From his vantage point at the Umm-Kassar border crossing on Kuwait's northeastern seacoast, an Iraqi transport ship can be seen lumbering northward into the Khawr Az Zubayr inlet, a waterway divided between Kuwait and Iraq that servers as Iraq's main navigational outlet to the Persian Gulf. The waterway leads directly to the Iraqi port of Umm Kassar and, further inland, to the Khawr Az Zubayr port. Beyond that point, the Al-Basra Canal links the waterway to another port in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

Just out of Faraj's view over the horizon, a pipeline passes along Iraq's 70 kilometers of coastline carrying oil from the rich Rumaylah field in southern Iraq. It leads to the Faw Port and pumping station near the Iran-Iraq border. Railroad tracks also lead north from Umm-Kassar toward Baghdad.

A wind blowing into Kuwait from Iraq carries the smell of a nearby Iraqi oil refinery, oil terminals, and a natural-gas plant.

All of this oil and transport infrastructure near Umm-Kassar is considered to be of vital importance.

In case of a U.S.-led war against Iraq, U.S. Marines are expected to try to seize the Iraqi facilities quickly, along with the Rumaylah oil fields farther west.

But for now, the only sign of any U.S. military presence in the area is a solitary Humvee, a U.S.-built armored patrol vehicle designed specifically for desert terrain that an RFE/RL correspondent saw driving just south of the United Nations-monitored demilitarized zone.

Faraj described what he can see from his observation post and what he knows from intelligence reports and satellite photos about what lies beyond. "We are only a few hundred [meters] from Iraq at the Umm-Kassar border-police post on the Kuwaiti side. Less than 500 [meters] away from us is [the town of] Umm-Kassar [in Iraq, with a population of about 50,000 people]. We [are very close to] the Umm-Kassar port, which is the major port in Iraq. [There you will find] the berths and the ships coming in from the [Persian] Gulf. And across from us, [you can see] two [buildings for the] headquarters of the Iraqi [border-] police patrol," Faraj said.

Also visible in the distance is Camp Khor, the main headquarters for the UN border-monitoring mission. Known as UNIKOM, the mission was established in April 1991 following the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Its task is to monitor the entire demilitarized zone along the border, to deter border violations, and to report on any hostile actions.

Before the 1990-91 Gulf War, the border between Kuwait and Iraq was a line that existed only on maps. There were few markers showing the exact location of the frontier. A dispute between Baghdad and Kuwait about the rich oil fields and navigational outlets along the border was the official reason given by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to justify his 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

But in the five years that followed the end of the Gulf War, UNIKOM changed the nature of the border region. Based on a series of historical documents and agreements involving Britain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait from 1913 to 1963, the UN team first determined the exact coordinates of the land boundary and erected 106 concrete pillars to mark it out.

Each yellow-and-black pillar stands 3 meters high and is sunk into the ground to a depth of 1.5 meters. That work was completed in 1993 after both Baghdad and Kuwait signed international treaties recognizing the demarcation line.

Once the task of marking out the border was completed, engineers used bulldozers to build a 3-meter ridge of earth on each side. The ridge on the Kuwaiti side lies 5 kilometers from the pillars, while the ridge on the Iraqi side is 10 kilometers from the steel-reinforced markers.

A 1-meter-deep trench has also been dug near the ridge. In the middle is a 217-kilometer-long barbed-wire fence with enough electricity passing through it to knock down anyone who touches it.

Faraj explained that the area between the two earth ridges is the official demilitarized zone established by a UN Security Council resolution after the 1990-91 Gulf War. "The northern border of Kuwait is a demilitarized zone which is only patrolled by police officers, and you are only allowed to carry side arms [when] patrolling in this area. The border [between Kuwait and Iraq] is 217 kilometers long [and] is divided into four major, different sectors. Each sector contains from four to five police posts. Most of them are equipped with night-vision [goggles] for night patrols and thermal imagers. And they are manned with specially trained border police [with] special equipment to patrol the area," Faraj said.

Indeed, a journey on the so-called "moon road" that passes along the length of the demilitarized zone reveals that there are now only five gates that allow vehicles to pass from Kuwait into Iraq.

That means that in the case of any U.S.-led war against Iraq, the 140,000 U.S. and British troops now in Kuwait will literally have to smash through the UN-built earthworks, fill in parts of the demilitarized-zone trenches, and cut through the barbed wire in order to move their armor and supply vehicles rapidly into Iraq.

It remains unclear how the 1,100 uniformed UN troops and 200 civilian UN experts in the demilitarized zone would react to such a move if it is done without a specific UN Security Council resolution authorizing military action against Iraq.

But Faraj said he expects that thousands of Iraqi refugees will try to cross into Kuwait in the event of war. He said his orders are to stop any mass migration of Iraqi refugees into Kuwait. "We coordinate with the United Nations, or UNIKOM, [about] the entry points from in and out of Iraq. In case of [any] large refugee movements, our task is to provide humanitarian aid and to escort them to refugee camps inside the Iraqi territory," Faraj said.

Faraj said he has heard about plans for the United Nations and the U.S. and British military forces to set up refugee camps within the Iraqi side of the demilitarized zone. But he said he does not know any details beyond the role of his border police. "If refugees try to come to Kuwait, we have coordination with the United Nations. And the United Nations has their own [plans for] refugee camps. It's going to be established inside the Iraqi demilitarized zone, and we'll escort them to the refugee camps, or we will hand them over to the United Nations, and they will take them to the camps," Faraj said.

Mustafa Omar, the regional representative for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, has said that his organization has a duty to prepare in advance for an influx of refugees in case of war. But so far, there are no visible signs of any refugee camps being set up within the demilitarized zone.

UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers said yesterday that his agency is preparing for 600,000 potential Iraqi refugees. Other UNHCR officials say most refugees would probably try to reach Iran or Turkey rather than Kuwait.

Still, preparations by international relief agencies in Kuwait are being conducted quietly. Aid groups have been positioning food, tents, and other supplies in strategic spots around Iraq. But some in Kuwait are reluctant to discuss details about their plans for fear of upsetting the Kuwaiti government, which is concerned that talk about such preparations could attract more refugees to their country.

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