KUWAIT CITY — Iraq's recent efforts to avoid paying Kuwait some $25 billion in U.N.-mandated reparations for Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion have alarmed Kuwaitis and strained relations that have slowly improved since the fall of the Iraqi dictator.
Many Kuwaitis doubt Iraq will make good on its obligations without outside pressure, and the country has sent envoys to both Washington and the U.N. in recent months to seek help.
"Iraq will not cooperate if things are left to bilateral ties," said Fayez al-Enezi, a member of a search team tasked with finding hundreds of Kuwaitis who went missing during the Iraqi occupation.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has waged his own offensive, pressing key U.N. members during a visit to the U.S. in late July to drop all binding resolutions against his country stemming from Saddam's seven-month occupation of Kuwait.
President Barack Obama has expressed support for lifting U.N. sanctions, among them a requirement that Iraq pay 5 percent of its oil revenues to Kuwait as reparations. However, he said Iraq's U.N. status should only be changed after the country resolves disputes with its neighbors — something Kuwaitis have been seeking for almost two decades.
The U.N. has approved $52.4 billion in compensation for individuals, companies and organizations, most of them Kuwaiti, that incurred losses in the war that followed Saddam's invasion. Around $27 billion has already been paid out from Iraqi oil revenues, leaving an outstanding balance of about $25.4 billion.
Money isn't the only thing at stake. The U.N. resolutions place a number of other obligations on Iraq, ranging from helping search for missing Kuwaitis to returning looted possessions. But Kuwaitis complain Iraq has provided little cooperation.
El-Enezi said the search for missing people has gone extremely slowly and 369 people are still unaccounted for. His team has found the remains of 236 people in mass graves in Iraq who were shot in the back of the head.
"We will never trust them," said civil servant Talal al-Otaibi, while sipping coffee in one of Kuwait City's busiest malls. "Iraq will never leave us alone. ... Iraqis still believe Kuwait is part of Iraq."
Iraq has made territorial claims on Kuwait ever since the country gained independence from Britain in 1961. Baghdad grudgingly approved a U.N. demarcation of their shared border in 1994 that placed 11 oil wells on the Kuwaiti side of the desert frontier. The two governments are still negotiating an agreement to drill joint border fields.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his government's efforts to shake off the U.N. resolutions were not aimed at compromising its smaller neighbor's sovereignty.
"We in Iraq need to make some ... real initiatives to dissipate those fears," he told the official Kuwait News Agency, promising to intensify the search for missing Kuwaitis.
Sami al-Faraj, who heads the independent Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies, said Iraq could generate some goodwill by returning Kuwait's national archives that were taken during Saddam's invasion.
"We're talking about historic documents, about proof we are not Iraqis, and (returning them) will not cost them billions," he said.
Kuwait looked forward to improved ties after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam. The country reopened its diplomatic mission that it had closed after Saddam's invasion and appointed an ambassador. But it is still waiting for Iraq to reciprocate. The Iraqi Embassy in Kuwait is headed by a charge d'affaires.
"In 2003, after the fall of Saddam's regime, we had high hopes," said political analyst Ayed al-Mannah. "Now we hear the same old language ... all over again."
Hajji al-Jasser, a 58-year-old businessman who was abroad when Iraqi tanks rolled into his country, said Kuwaitis do not hate Iraqis but are afraid of their "reckless" politicians. He said Kuwaitis should not give up a penny to make the point that Iraq's past behavior should be punished and not repeated.
Kuwait has taken a similarly hard line, refusing to cave to pressure from Washington to forgive $15 billion of Saddam-era debts.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Iraq and Kuwait on Monday to discuss alternative ways to settle outstanding war reparations, suggesting the possibility of converting them into investments to help Iraq's reconstruction.
Iraq has already proposed the idea to Kuwait, which has not officially responded. However, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheik Mohammed Al Sabah said Wednesday his country has its own proposals and was prepared to discuss them with Baghdad "under a U.N. umbrella."
Some Kuwaitis believe taking a middle road would be in the country's best interests.
"Opening the door wide for cooperation ... with Iraq is an investment for Kuwait in security and stability," the editor-in-chief of Alrai newspaper, Jassem Budai, wrote in an editorial. "Kuwaitis won't sleep soundly if their neighbors are hungry."