BAGHDAD — Baghdad called on Kuwait Wednesday to suspend work on a controversial megaport until Iraq is assured its shipping lanes will not be squeezed by the project but Kuwait said work on the project will continue.
The $1.1 billion (778 million euro) facility, on Kuwait's Bubiyan Island, is scheduled for completion in 2016. Baghdad fears the Mubarak port will compete with its own Faw and Khor al-Zubair ports and "strangle" Iraq's shipping routes.
"The Iraqi government asks the Kuwaiti side to stop work on the Mubarak port until we are assured that Iraqi shipping lanes, and free and safe navigation, will not be affected," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.
"There is no information and data to assure the Iraqi government that its navigation interests will not be damaged" by the project, the statement said.
It requested Kuwait to "hand over all information needed by Iraq to ensure that its rights will be preserved."
At a news conference Wednesday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country would send an expert mission to Kuwait, but did not specify when.
He said Kuwait had agreed to receive a mission of experts and officials from several ministries "to find a solution acceptable to both sides."
"We try to resolve the problem through official channels to guarantee Iraq's interests and freedom of navigation," Zebari said. "We want a positive approach, and do not seek an escalation," he added.
Zebari stressed that relations with Kuwait remained delicate.
A Kuwaiti foreign ministry official expressed "dismay" at the "statement made by the spokesman of the Iraqi government, who called on the state of Kuwait to halt work in Mubarak Al-Kabir port project."
Kuwait "confirms that construction work at the Mubarak port will continue," said the unnamed official quoted by the state news agency KUNA, adding that Iraq "has no legal basis" to call for a halt.
However, the official said Kuwait was ready to "receive again an Iraqi technical delegation to be briefed on technicalities related to the project" after having done so in May.
In August 1990, troops under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and occupied the country until being driven out by an international coalition in early 1991.
"August 2 will be the anniversary of the invasion of the emirate by Iraqi forces and the crimes they committed. In our comments, we must respect the sensitivity of our neighbour," Zebari added.
"Kuwait has every right to build on Bubiyan, which is its territory, and there is no dispute about that. Our problem is the freedom of navigation in the channel leading to Khor al-Zubair," a major port Iraq is developing.
"Kuwait has the right to lead this project, but we are neighbours, so we need an explanation in defence of our interests," Zebari said.
Kuwait's As-Siyassa daily quoted government spokesman Ali al-Rashid on Wednesday as saying the emirate would not stop construction and will "continue until the end."
The Gulf is the main export outlet for Iraqi oil, which accounts for the lion's share of the country's revenues, and Baghdad has started major work to modernise its outdated ports.