Iraq, Kuwait wary of effects of US-Iran tensions

Iraq is studying plans for alternative ways to export its oil should US-Iran escalations cut off oil exports through the Gulf.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Common worries. Iraqi President Barham Salih (R) and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (L) meet with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah in Baghdad, June 19.  (Office of the Iraqi Presidency)
Common worries. Iraqi President Barham Salih (R) and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (L) meet with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah in Baghdad, June 19. (Office of the Iraqi Presidency)

LONDON - Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah visited Baghdad to discuss with Iraqi leaders bilateral relations and rising tensions between the United States and Iran. It was his first visit to Iraq since 2012 when he attended an Arab summit in Baghdad.

Relations between Iraq and Kuwait reached their lowest point after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Ties gradually improved after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

During his 6-hour visit June 19, Sheikh Sabah, accompanied by a government delegation, met with Iraqi President Barham Salih and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The leaders called for “wisdom and reason” in dealing with tensions in the region to avoid an escalation leading to clashes, reported Kuwait’s news agency KUNA.

Sheikh Sabah’s visit “comes amid rising and unprecedented tensions and developments witnessed by the region, particularly the acts which targeted the safety of oil supplies through destruction and strikes on oil and commercial vessels,” KUNA said.

Six oil tankers have been attacked in the past month near the Strait of Hormuz, through which Iraq and Kuwait transport most of their oil.

Kuwait said the attacks threaten international peace and security but did not mention who might be behind them. The United States and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of being responsible, a charge denied by Tehran.

“The visit is an extension of previous visits (between Iraqi and Kuwaiti officials) and focused on activating previous agreements between the two countries, maintaining current relations and strengthening them, and discussing the debt and related issues of the previous phase (before 2003),” an Iraqi official told Arab News.

“They also discussed the current challenges facing Iraq in the region as a result of the Iranian-American tensions and the mechanisms to overcome it and to create a common area of understanding to deal with both sides of the conflict.”

On the day Sheikh Sabah visited Baghdad, an oil-drilling site in the Iraqi southern province of Basra was hit with a Katyusha rocket. Iraqi officials said the attack wounded three Iraqi workers in the Zubair and Rumaila oil fields camp, which is operated by the Iraqi Drilling Company but also where US energy giant Exxon Mobil has workers’ caravans. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Exxon Mobil had evacuated its foreign staff from the West Qurna 1 oil field in Basra province in May because of security concerns. The 83 foreign workers have since returned to Iraq after “guarantees” from the government.

Observers point to a possible retaliation against US interests carried out by Iraqi militias loyal to Iran.

Iraqi officials said US assets in Iraq had been shelled in the past week. “There’s a red alert issued by the American companies. The senior expat management are leaving today and tomorrow,” an Iraqi source told Agence France-Presse (AFP) June 19.

Abbas Maher, the mayor of the southern Iraqi town of Zubair, blamed Iran-backed groups for the attack in Basra, which he said targeted Exxon Mobil to send a warning to the United States.

“We cannot separate this from regional developments, meaning the US-Iranian conflict,” Maher told Reuters. “These incidents have political objectives… it seems some sides did not like the return of Exxon staff.”

An unnamed Iraqi security source pointed a finger at Tehran over the Basra incident. “According to our sources, the team (that fired the rocket) is made up of more than one group and were well-trained in missile launching,” the source told Reuters.

Three rockets were fired June 17 at Taji military base, 30km north of Baghdad, where US forces are deployed. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Iraq fears being caught in the crossfire of a possible US-Iranian military showdown. Abdel-Mahdi pushed for “calm” in a phone call June 14 with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Iraq is studying plans for alternative ways to export its oil should US-Iran escalations cut off oil exports through the Gulf.

“There is no replacement for the southern port and our other alternatives are limited. It’s a source of anxiety for the global oil market,” Iraqi Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad told AFP.

Members of the Iraqi parliament called for an emergency session with ministers of oil, trade, planning and transport to “prepare to confront the possible dangers.”

3