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Iraq: Regional Integration Seen Hampered By Thorny Issues

Iraq's Gulf neighbors are discussing ways to try to reintegrate the country into regional institutions. But the process is complicated by a number of bilateral issues, including the settlement of war reparations and compensation claims.

Prague, 18 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq has been trying to normalize ties with its neighbors since the fall of deposed President Saddam Hussein's regime in April.

One of the major problems to mending ties broken by years of war and international isolation is the transitional nature of Iraq's current government.

Ambassador David Mack is the vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington and has many years of experience in the region. He says the first priority for Iraq to mending ties is to establish a legitimate government.

"At this point Iraq has no established government system. The members of the Iraqi Governing Council are working quite hard to try to come up with a framework for developing a constitution and moving toward full legitimacy vis-a-vis the Iraqi people and their neighbors. The political situation in Iraq remains in a state of evolution. At this point, it would be very, very difficult to predict exactly what the future Iraqi government's orientation will be on key foreign policy issues, such as the relationships with its various neighbors," Mack said.

Foreign ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are meeting on 21 December to discuss a wide range of issues, including Iraq's recent request to join the group. The group expelled Iraq from a number of its sports, educational, and social councils after the invasion and occupation of Kuwait in August 1990.

GCC Secretary-General Abdulrahman al-Attiya was quoted yesterday as saying it was too early to discuss full membership for Iraq. The group links Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain.

Bilateral relations with Kuwait are seen as especially crucial. Ties were severed after the first Gulf War when Hussein's forces invaded and tried to annex the emirate.

Now, with Hussein gone, Kuwaiti authorities have demonstrated a willingness to improve ties.

"Senior Kuwaiti government officials have made it clear that they welcome the political developments in Baghdad and want to establish a proper relationship with a new government. And they've also been providing humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people, in addition to the support they give to coalition forces in conducting operations in the country," Mack said.

Normalizing ties will not be easy. Some 600 Kuwaitis are still missing since the 1990 invasion. In addition, there is the matter of thousands of millions of dollars in war reparations claims filed by individuals, groups, companies, and the government of Kuwait.

The UN said on 16 December that prospects for finding the missing Kuwaitis were dim. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was quoted as saying a "grim truth is unveiling itself." He pointed to mass graves that have been uncovered in Iraq with Kuwaiti remains. Abdul Hameed al-Attar is a member of Kuwaiti national committee for missing and prisoners of war. He says most of the affected families had already lost hope of finding their relatives alive. He said, however, they will continue to press for compensation.

"The Kuwaiti government [and] the families of the POWs are really willing to raise claims for compensation through the United Nations and to ask the Iraqi government to pay this compensation sooner or later. So, this is something. The government of Kuwait cannot give any concessions to the Iraqis regarding these claims. This is a very, very major issue that should be solved between Kuwait and the Iraqi government," al-Attar said.

Kuwait has already been awarded millions of dollars of compensation for damages and losses caused by the invasion. A special UN body is already processing claims amounting to some $350 billion.

But more claims are likely as the preparations for Hussein's trial begin. Kuwait is preparing a list of alleged crimes and says it wants to take part in any trial against Hussein.

Iran, too, says it is preparing a criminal complaint against Hussein over the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Reports today said the country could file reparations claims of as much as $100 billion.

Israel, which came under Iraqi missile attack in the 1991 Gulf War, might also file claims.

It's unclear as yet how these problems will be sorted out and who -- if anyone -- will pay the reparations.

Mack, for his part, believes it will take time, patience, and effort to resolve the conflicts.

"With regard to the missing Kuwaitis who were either killed or taken as prisoners of war by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1990-1991, I believe that the new Iraqi government will to the best of its ability try to satisfy the Kuwaiti government in that regard with all the information that it can possibly provide about those unfortunate events. In regard to the reparations, I think this issue remains uncertain. It's one of the things that former [U.S.] Secretary of State [James] Baker, I am sure, will be discussing with the Kuwaitis quite soon, because it is to a certain extent similar to the [Iraqi] debt question that secretary Baker has in his portfolio for the discussion," Mack said.