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Regional Outlook : Lines in the Sand Drawing Gulf Nations Into Disputes : It's not just Iraq. Across the region, skirmishes are breaking out over old colonial borders.

October 13, 1992|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH OF SAFWAN, Iraq-Kuwait border — Somewhere amid the tomato plants and garlic fields in the U.N. Demilitarized Zone here, there once stood a date palm tree. When a young British officer named Maj. John More set off on foot to draw what has become one of the world's most contentious and embattled lines in the sand 69 years ago, that "southerly palm" was about the only natural landmark he could find in the desert wasteland between what are now Iraq and Kuwait.

So, from the foot of the palm, More walked 1,000 paces due south, and there he planted a little signboard that declared, "Iraq-Kuwait Boundary."

Seven decades later, not even the most sophisticated U.S. spy satellites, the most learned British historians and the most efficient European photo interpreters could find More's palm tree. His signboard vanished sometime in 1939. And so, to this day, no one is really certain about the exact location of an international border that brought the U.S. and 30 other nations to war with Iraq last year.

Nor do the two dozen or so Iraqi farmers whose families have owned and worked the fields here for at least 30 years have the slightest idea which country to call home.

Nevertheless, the United Nations this week will begin planting concrete pylons every 1.25 miles along the entire 125-mile length of what it, after an 18-month investigation by the Western world's most skilled border detectives, has decided is the proper line, running directly through those tomato and garlic fields. The world body insists the border will be accurate to within inches, but Iraqi President Saddam Hussein vows it will "create a permanent center of boiling tension."

Such, it seems, is the legacy of many of this volatile region's lines in the sand--the often arbitrary international borders drawn on colonial maps yet never clearly drawn on land, which are now erupting in clashes, controversy and growing instability throughout the Persian Gulf.

More's missing date palm is just one of many mysteries of history that continue to plague the oil-rich region. The continuing dispute over the Iraq-Kuwait border is just the most extreme of a whole series of boundary battles now pitting many of the region's neighbors against one another.

In the past few weeks alone, border skirmishes and escalating wars of words have broken out between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Qatar and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates and Iran. Two died and several were injured in a gun battle two weeks ago at a disputed border post between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Substantial armed forces are ominously deployed along both sides of the oil-rich Saudi-Yemeni border. And Iran has escalated its rhetoric over the disputed Abu Musa island near the choke point for the world's oil supply, warning Arab leaders in the Gulf that all their borders are "arbitrary" and that their land claims against Tehran are tantamount to "grabbing a lion by the tail."

The sudden deluge of border bashing is largely coincidental, and each dispute is fueled by its own set of local political imperatives.

But analysts--including some of the men who helped draw those original lines in the sand--say most of the region's new flash points share common roots. Directly or indirectly, most appear to be an outgrowth of last year's Gulf War muscle-flexing by all nations in the regional power vacuum that a decimated Iraqi military machine left behind.

Also, in virtually every case, the skirmishes can be traced to the fuzziness of the borders that the region's British colonial administrators once carved into desert sheikdoms--borders defined not by rivers, lakes and mountains but by the location of wandering tribes and armies.

"When you talk about borders or territorial boundaries here, you're imposing a Western idea on Arab Bedouin states," said Sir Julian Walker, a British diplomat who helped mark out the boundaries that turned the United Arab Emirates into a serpentine mosaic that, at one point, actually cuts Oman off from itself.

"So a lot of these disputes have been rumbling along for a long time. I'd like to think that people are talking about them more now because some, at least, are moving along toward a solution for the first time--a new-found resolve to dissolve the tension."

Senior delegations from Saudi Arabia and Yemen did sit down in Riyadh early this month in an effort to define for the first time a border on which billions of dollars are at stake. U.S. and other Western oil companies have been drilling in the border region under contract with the Yemeni government for years now. But earlier this year Saudi officials sent formal notices to those companies informing them they were on Saudi territory.

The influential Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper reported that both sides have shown a "clear concern to resolve the issue in a brotherly manner."

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