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Iraq: Faw fishermen trapped by maritime disputes
by Staff Writers
Faw, Iraq (AFP) June 22, 2011

Like the fish they net, fishermen in Iraq's southernmost Faw peninsula find themselves trapped by their country's unresolved maritime disputes with neighbouring Iran and Kuwait.

The boundary frictions, fishermen complain, are eroding an age-old way of life as well as their livelihoods.

Muhammad Hussein, 50, remembers a time when the narrow Faw peninsula, where the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers empty into the Gulf, used to provide plentiful fishing and a comfortable living for hundreds of fishermen like himself.

"We would earn plenty of money from fishing, which used to be one of the best occupations in Faw," he remembers. "There were more than 600 boats in the village, but now there are less than 400, because about 2,000 people have left fishing and gone to other jobs," he says.

The main reason for the fishermen's demise, he adds, is the constant friction with Iranian coast guards and Kuwaiti patrols, who ply the Gulf waterway for oil exports.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was ousted in the 2003 US-led invasion, fought a 1980-88 war with Iran and invaded neighbouring Kuwait in 1990 before his forces were pushed out by another US-led coalition.

"The Kuwaitis insult and humiliate Iraqi fishermen, spitting in their faces, splashing paint on them or beating them," says Hussein, the fisherman.

"The Iranian patrols beat us without mercy, and sometimes capture Iraqi fishermen and keep them imprisoned for months without reason," he says.

In May last year, Iranian border guards arrested nine Iraqi fishermen they said were in Iranian waters in the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, with Tehran warning its forces would not allow "any violation of Iranian territorial waters.

Early this year, Iraq and Kuwait agreed on channels of communication to resolve fishing disputes after a January 10 clash between Kuwaiti coastguards and Iraqi fishermen that left one Kuwaiti dead.

Hussein says that fishing was safe and profitable under Saddam's regime because fishermen were protected by the Iraqi navy and coast guards, which are still struggling to rebuild after being dismantled following the 2003 US-led invasion.

An unresolved boundary dispute over the Shatt al-Arab was a major reason cited by Saddam for the 1980-88 war with Iran where the Faw peninsula was a scene of the some of the bloodiest fighting.

Maritime disputes with Kuwait remain similarly unresolved, adding to the bitterness from Iraq's 1990 invasion that triggered the first Gulf War.

"I have been fishing since I was 18 and I have never seen things as bad as they are now," says Thejil Nabet Flaih, 60.

"Myself, I have seen Iranians beating Iraqi fishermen and destroying their equipment, without anyone protecting. The same happens with the Kuwaitis, who never miss a chance to humiliate us if they see us," he adds.

Badran Issa al-Tamimi, says that rising fuel costs were another problem.

"Before the collapse of the previous regime, the government would sell fuel to fishermen at about 3,000 dinars (one dollar) for a 220-litre (48-gallon) barrel. Now, they sell the same for 80,000 dinars," says Badran Issa al-Temimi, the 55-year-old head of the al-Nasr Fishermen's Association.

"Those who could found other professions, like driving a taxi or opening a shop, and others moved away to make a living elsewhere," says al-Temimi.

"The ones left behind stay because they are originally from Faw and they know no other profession but fishing."

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