KUWAIT CITY // Iraq's first ambassador to Kuwait since the invasion 20 years ago has arrived amid increasing tension between the two countries over the payment of war reparations. Mohammed Hussein Bahr al Ulum avoided questions from a swarm of journalists when he flew into Kuwait Airport from Dubai on Sunday. Officials at the Iraqi Embassy said yesterday that the ambassador would arrange a press conference within the next two weeks to address concerns, including what many believe to be an Iraqi attempt to avoid paying money owed to Kuwait by dissolving Iraqi Airways last week.
The Iraqi Embassy in Kuwait opened in temporary quarters in 2005 after the permanent building was wrecked by locals when coalition forces brushed aside Saddam Hussein's army in 1991. The permanent embassy was reopened after refurbishment one year ago, and for many of the Iraqis conducting their paperwork yesterday, it was business as usual. "There is no problem between Iraq and Kuwait these days. I never have any problems at the border," said Mohammed Adeb, an Iraqi who has worked in Kuwait for the past two years. Mr Adeb was applying for a new passport because his current one is full of border stamps from regularly making the short trip home.
The relationship is not always as easy as Mr Adeb sees it. The new ambassador will soon be embroiled in disputes left over from the First Gulf War that simmer under the surface and sometimes heat up. To the disgust of many Iraqi politicians, their country still uses five per cent of its oil revenues to pay off US$24 billion (Dh88bn) in remaining war reparations to Kuwait and the neighbours' maritime border is still under dispute.
The reparations issue flared up again last week when Iraq's transport ministry dissolved the national carrier, Iraqi Airways, in what many believe was an attempt to escape the debt and operating restrictions placed on the company. Kuwait says the airline owes $1.2bn because of the theft of 10 Kuwait Airways planes and spare parts during the occupation which lasted from August 1990 to February 1991.
Kuwait Airways has sought to freeze the company's assets worldwide, and last month the Iraqi carrier's first flight to London in 20 years was met by lawyers representing the government-run firm. They had obtained a high court order in London that provided for the freezing of Iraqi Airways's assets and the passport of Kifah Hassan Jabbar, the carrier's director general, was seized. Eventually, the aeroplane was released because it was chartered from a Swedish company and the Iraqi Airways official was allowed to go home.
Karim al Tamimi, an Iraqi transport ministry spokesman, told the Associated Press last week: "Iraq's cabinet decided to close Iraqi Airways and announced its bankruptcy because the company doesn't own aeroplanes and because of the Kuwaiti government's cases raised against the company. "We hope in the future to replace it by two or three companies to resume its operations," Mr al Tamimi said. Iraqis have argued that they should not be punished for the actions of their former dictator and the payments of reparations are threatening attempts to rebuild their fragile economy after years of economic mismanagement and wars. Baghdad has said that four of the stolen aircraft were destroyed in Mosul during an allied air raid in 1991 and six were sent to Iran for safekeeping then returned to Kuwait in 1992.
But Kuwait's legislators are unrepentant. In parliament last week, Saad al Khanfour, an MP, said Iraq's dissolution of the company violated international laws and principles, and the burden of debt should now fall on the Iraqi government, the local press reported. Parliament's speaker, Jassem al Kharafi, said: "If Iraq feels that it has taken the right measures to serve its interests, Kuwait should also take certain steps to protect its legal rights."
The Kuwaiti government has played down the political angle to the row. On Sunday, before leaving on a trip to the Far East, the minister for foreign affairs, Mohammed Sabah al Salem al Sabah, said that the dispute with Iraqi Airways was a commercial issue that would be handled in the British courts. The escalation of the dispute has led the US's ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, to comment that the relationship between Iraq and Kuwait "needs to get better".