KUWAIT CITY // The Kuwaiti prime minister's visit to Iraq this week was the biggest step taken to repair the relationship between the two countries since the Iraqi invasion 21 years ago, Kuwaiti analysts said yesterday.
Shamlan Alessa, a political scientist at Kuwait University, said: "We've been looking forward to this day for a long time. This is a good step to normalise relations."
The Kuwaiti prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al Sabah, held discussions with his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al Maliki, during a one-day trip to Baghdad on Wednesday. After the meeting, the two countries said they would form a committee to improve ties and resolve issues from their troubled past.
Abdul Reda Assiri, the dean of the college of social sciences at Kuwait University, said the visit was the biggest détente since the Iraqi army invaded its neighbour in 1990.
"Whether it's official or quasi-official", he said, any visit between the two countries is a turning point towards a "normal and progressive" relationship.
"Of course, a visit by the prime minister of Kuwait is a visit by the highest official," Mr Assiri said, adding that a sojourn by the head of the government could "marginalise the fear that Kuwaitis always hold of Iraq".
The speaker of Kuwait's National Assembly, Jassem al Kharafi, told reporters yesterday that the visit and the Iraqi statements confirm the desire for good relations and a stable region.
Kuwait's minister for foreign affairs, Sheikh Mohammed Sabah al Sabah, said the emir would attend the Arab summit scheduled to be held in Baghdad in March. In a press conference after the meeting, he said the joint committee will discuss several concerns "including the issue of debts".
Iraq still owes Kuwait about US$21.7 billion (Dh79.7bn) in war reparations, according to the United Nations Compensation Commission, which oversees a fund paid for with five per cent of Iraqi oil sales. Kuwait is owed billions more in loans mostly made when Saddam Hussein's regime fought Iran in an eight-year war, but last year Sheikh Mohammed suggested Kuwait would forgive the loans in return for security and good relations.
Payment of the reparations is just one condition that Iraq must fulfil to escape from the remaining sanctions imposed under Chapter Seven of the UN charter. Other issues include co-operation in resolving the fate of Kuwaitis who remain missing since the invasion and the return of stolen artefacts.
"The major obstacle was how to solve the border issue, but this was solved last month," Mr Alessa said.
He said the two countries are in agreement of where the border should lie except for a small area of Kuwaiti land that is owned by Iraqi farmers.
The relationship between the two countries had little chance of improvement while Saddam Hussein remained in power; that changed when he was ousted in 2003 by a US-led invasion. Mr al Assiri said the relationship is thawing because Kuwait wants to support the democratic government that has recently come to power. He said there is an "economic undercurrent" because Iraq is opening up to foreign investment and Kuwait wants to keep its neighbour within the Arab sphere of influence.
Mr Alessa said the two countries recently agreed to establish joint ventures in agriculture and industry, where Kuwait's money is invested to create jobs for Iraqis and profit both countries. He said: "Kuwaiti businessmen are already investing in the north, in Erbil, where they have no trouble, and some Shiite companies in Kuwait are investing in the south, in Karbala and Najaf." The improved relations could facilitate investment into the Sunni-dominated centre of the country.
Economic co-operation grew when the two countries agreed to share oil from fields that straddle the border in August, bringing another painfully contentious issue to a close. Saddam had accused Kuwait of slant drilling under the sand to steal Iraqi oil before sending his armies south.
Diplomatic relations have slowly returned. Iraq opened an embassy in temporary headquarters in Kuwait in 2005 and sent an ambassador in May for the first time since the invasion.
"It will take time," Mr Assiri said. "Kuwaitis still have some bad memories of Iraq and it's not an easy process. But the normalising process is like curing an illness: it takes a while."