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Saddam's historical claims on Kuwait a 'pretext'

By JOHN HALL

LONDON -- The 'line in the sand' on which American troops, Western and Arab forces are massing to defend Saudi Arabia and restore Kuwaiti independence was first drawn nearly seven decades ago by a British diplomat armed with a red pencil.

A 1922 conference to settle the boundaries and stop the cross-border raids by Bedouin tribes had bogged down from the start, with the Iraqi representative and the future king of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Ibn Saud each claiming large chunks of each other's nascent countries.

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Borders had been unimportant and largely unknown in the vast desert, where allegiances to clan mattered more than land during the centuries of Ottoman rule.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, Britain came to control this desert and set out to create European-style borders in the shifting sands.

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Sir Percy Cox, Britain's high commissioner in Baghdad, played the multiple roles of mediator, arbitrator and map maker for the representatives of Iraq, Kuwait and Ibn Saud in desert tents at Uqair.

Sick of the endless debate, Cox first took Ibn Saud aside and reprimanded him 'like a naughty schoolboy,' according to a witness.

'They had gone on for several days,' recalled British translator Lt. Harold Dickson in his memoirs on the dispute of the three Arab countries.

Cox then declared he would set the borders.

'At a general meeting of the conference, Sir Percy took a red pencil and very carefully drew in on the map of Arabia a boundary line,' Dickson wrote.

The result displeased all except the British.

Ibn Saud told Cox: 'You deprived me of half my kingdom, better take it all and let me go into retirement,' but he later acquiesced to the plan.

The new borderlines reduced Kuwait by two-thirds in size to compensate Ibn Saud.

Cox told the Kuwaiti ruler that in this case the sword was mighter than the pen. If Ibn Saud had not been given Kuwaiti territory, he and his larger army would quickly find some pretext to take it.

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Iraq gained some of what was to become Saudi Arabia, but was denied the whole of Kuwait as well as direct access to the Gulf -- a configuration some analysts blame not only for Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion, but also the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

Iraq, which has since annexed Kuwait as its 19th province, naming part of the area after its leader Saddam Hussein, stakes its claim on the fact that both areas were once under Ottoman rule, arguing Kuwait was administered as part of Iraq, then called Mesopotamia.

Using an argument that has strong appeal to Arab nationalists, Hussein contends Britain and other colonial powers divided up the Arab world to keep it subjugated and to steal the immense oil wealth from the majority of Arabs.

'The branch has returned to the tree trunk,' Saddam has said of Iraq's annexation of Kuwait.

But while historians concede the arbitrary nature of the Arabian borders, many doubt or dismiss any historical claim to the whole of Kuwait.

'In terms of contemporary events, it's all hooey,' said Professor Donald Cameron Watt, an international historian at the London School of Economics, adding that Iraq itself was a creation of the British government.

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'I suppose Iraq could argue the frontiers were forced on them, but so was the whole Iraq state,' he said. 'Iraq is a made state. It's an artificial state in that foreigners made it.'

Saddam's historical claim, Watt said, was no more than a pretext to seize Kuwait's oil fields.

'It's the sort of thing that ambitious men dream up when they want to grab something,' he said.

Elie Kedourie, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the 1922 demarcation of Iraq and Kuwait was not influenced by oil, which had not yet been discovered, or by a British attempt to keep Iraq out of the Gulf.

Britain received a League of Nations mandate for Iraq in 1920 and did not expect to relinquish it soon.

'All these things that really look so large (now) were really trivial,' Kedourie said. 'For the sake of tidiness, they had to draw the line.'

Watt said there was no question at that time of Iraq becoming a regional power.

'The idea of Iraq being a power at that stage is absolute twaddle,' he said.NEWLN: more

Pre-invasion Kuwait owed its independence to its position on the edge of the sprawling Ottoman Empire and to British protection as that empire waned.

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Territories like Kuwait that were on the fringes of the empire gained a greater degree of autonomy. At times Kuwait paid tribute to Constantinople, but withheld payment when they could get away with it.

Raids on British trade ships en route to India earned the southern Gulf area the reputation of 'pirate coast' and first brought Britain to the region in the middle of the last century to protect its ships.

Britain's interest in Kuwait itself came late last century. Kuwait, a crossroads town and fishing and pearling port controlled by the al-Sabah family since 1756, also attracted the attention of the Germans.

Plans for a Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad with a terminus in Kuwait City alarmed the British. Fearing a German-Turkish axis, Britain quickly signed a 1899 treaty with Kuwait offering protection in return for exclusive British control of the sheikhdom's diplomatic relations and trade.

The British presence enabled Kuwait to keep the Ottomans and Germans away. It also helped Kuwait's ruler, Mubarek the Great, who had seized power by killing his two brothers, when his raiding expedition against a neighbor failed.

Mubarek was repulsed by the neighbor and retreated to Kuwait City. The neighbor prepared to attack Kuwait in revenge, but was dissuaded by the presence of the British warship HMS Perseus off the coast.

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British influence in Kuwait was strengthened with the start of World War I, in which the Ottomans sided with the Germans.

The war ended up finishing off the Ottoman Empire, leaving Britain and France to divide the spoils and draw the borders.

Since the 1922 conference, which was held before oil was discovered in Kuwait, Iraq has made occasional demands for Kuwait. In the 1930s, Iraq's king tried with provocative radio broadcasts to incite Kuwaitis to rebel. He also proposed a union of the two countries.

Shortly after Britain granted independence to Kuwait in 1961, Iraqi leader Gen. Abdul Karim Kassim said Britain had no such right and promised to extend Iraq's borders to the south of Kuwait.

British troops returned to Kuwait, but began withdrawing four days later to be replaced by an Arab League force.

After the British withdrawal, Kuwait's petrodollars helped secure its independence and peace.

The exploitation of Kuwait's massive oil reserves, which turned a country slightly smaller than New Jersey into one of the world's wealthiest states per capita, gave it the funds to buy protection.

Kuwait's leaders 'loaned' Iraq $85 million two years after the 1961 crisis when Kassem's successors agreed to abandon territorial claims and recognize Kuwait's independence.

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A 1968 coup brought Saddam and his Baath party to power. Five years later, Iraq briefly occupied a part of northwest Kuwait before withdrawing under Arab League pressure.

It has continued to seek two Gulf islands, Warba and Bubiyan, possession of which would give it access to the Gulf, but Kuwait has refused to yield them.

During the war with Iran, Saddam offered a 99-year lease for use of the islands in 1981. Kuwait declined, but continued to help bankroll Iraq, then viewed as defending the Gulf from Iran's export of Islamic fundamentalism.

Last July, Saddam turned his attention to Kuwait again, accusing it of impoverishing Iraq by cheating on its OPEC oil quota, threatening retribution unless oil prices were put up.

The oil cartel raised the price of oil, but Saddam added new demands: territory and $2.4 billion compensation for oil he claimed Kuwait stole from an Iraqi oilfield during the Iran-Iraq war.

By early August, Iraq stopped saber-rattling and crossed Cox's red line to annex Kuwait for 'eternity.'

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