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Keeping the lid on Iraq

Reviving the Kuwait sovereignty issue would be disastrous for Iraq

Not that old chestnut again. Iraqi MP Awatef Neema in early February stirred unsettling memories when she pronounced that Kuwait was part of Iraq under the jurisdiction of Basra. She was echoing the nationalist war cry frequently heard in Saddam Hussein's era and which provided the spurious justification for his 1990 invasion of the neighbouring emirate. Surely, with the end of Saddam's dictatorship and the trauma of the disastrous Kuwait adventure not forgotten, that particular evil should now be firmly back inside Pandora's box.

The remarks of one MP don't, of course, constitute official thinking. But they clearly still reflect the view of some Iraqis and are a reminder of the dangerous cocktail of domestic and regional aspirations. Get rid of a dictator and Iraq sets off on a new path. But this doesn't mean that all the gripes and feuds of the past are forgotten. The pile of unresolved issues only gets bigger, never smaller.

So, for example, when Mosul is finally liberated from Islamic State (IS) control, life in northern Iraq is unlikely to return to normal. Many displaced families will delay their return. Their main concern won't be the prospect of the destruction awaiting them as much as fears about the stability of the whole region. Will Kurdish forces give up towns and villages they have occupied in the wake of IS retreats? Will Shia militias withdraw from predominantly Sunni areas? Will the KRG press for independence with the hotly contested oil city of Kirkuk still under their control?

Kirkuk's future matters because it affects the country's energy sector. An uneasy relationship between Baghdad and Erbil at present allows the KRG to operate some fields previously in the hands of the North Oil Company, while the latter is able to export limited volumes through Kurdish infrastructure for lifting at Ceyhan in Turkey. A clash over Kirkuk would kiss goodbye to such cooperation and in the worst case lead to war.

The precariousness of the current Baghdad-Erbil arrangement makes the southern oilfields vital for the survival of Iraq. The long period of low global oil prices - at a time of high military expenditure on the anti-IS campaign - has crippled the Baghdad government. But any major disruption to the 3m barrels a day of oil exported through Basra and Khor al-Amaya would be life-threatening.

The south remained isolated from the effects of the IS expansion across central and northern Iraq in 2014 and has been spared the worst of the sectarian suicide bombings that Baghdad and other cities have endured since then.

But not all are happy in the southern provinces. People in Basra and elsewhere are incensed that the region on which Iraq depends for its survival is not compensated adequately through state budget allocations. The calls for greater autonomy from the federal authorities are getting louder. The suggestion at one end of the scale is that the Basra government might negotiate directly with international oil companies for upstream contracts; at the other end, it's independence.

Radical change in southern Iraq doesn't seem imminent. But resentment at the domination of the central authorities and calls for autonomy are unsettling - for potential foreign investors as much as for Iraqis themselves. How much more alarming would it be for Iraq and its southern energy sector if a single call for Kuwait to be brought back under Iraqi control were to be followed by others? Iraq has enough lunacies to contend with and needs to keep the lid on Pandora's box so that this dangerous idea doesn't escape once more.

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