THE United Nations coalition, having won the Gulf war, may be planting a time bomb that will wreck the long-term goal of peace and security in the area. Cartographers labored for over a year to mark the precise boundary between Iraq and Kuwait. They plodded over the ground and employed the most sophisticated aerial photography and satellite positioning. They consulted old documents. But the line they have drawn and will present to the UN Security Council for approval in July is unacceptable to Iraq - an irredentist rallying cry for redress by Saddam Hussein and any subsequent Iraqi demagogues.
The story is out of "Arabian Nights." There has never been a clear boundary between Iraq and Kuwait. There was no Iraq until after World War I. Great Britain formed it from three districts of the defunct Ottoman Empire, two of them rich in oil, under a League of Nations mandate. Kuwait was little more than a figure of speech, an ill-defined area ruled by the Al-Sabah family. The Al-Sabahs acknowledged Ottoman sovereignty but hedged their bets in a secret pact with Britain, which wanted oil.
Under the Ottomans as under the British, internal boundaries were not important and were drawn with a wave of the hand. At one location, the Iraq-Kuwait border was marked by the southernmost palm tree "just south of Safwan." A notice was set there, which the Iraqis later removed "to repaint it."
Repeatedly over the years, Baghdad demanded possession of Kuwait as part of the Ottoman district of Basra, now the southern province of Iraq. Although Iraq in 1963 formally recognized Kuwait as an independent state, Saddam revived this claim when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. It has never been renounced. Iraq has also tried to acquire two large mudflats, Kuwait's islands of Warba and Bubiyan. They dominate the approach to Iraq's second port, Umm Qasr, which today is Iraq's only dry cargo port. Basra, the la rger, is dead; the Shatt al-Arab, the great river that leads to the Gulf is blocked by sunken ships and silt that will take years to remove if Iran consents. Umm Qasr is where the drill hits the nerve. There and at the prodigious Rumaila oil field.
THE UN Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission is giving Kuwait a larger portion of Rumaila's south end. One of Saddam's professed reasons for the 1990 invasion was that Kuwait had tapped this pool and stolen his oil. After the near-apocalyptic torching of Kuwait's oil fields, Iraq is lucky not to lose Rumaila. Umm Qasr is something else. By putting Warba and Bubiyan out of Baghdad's reach and with them control of the deep-water channel to the harbor, Iraq is dependent upon Kuwait's good will. Otherw ise it is landlocked. Also, the new boundary runs through the naval base Iraq built during the war with Iran just south of Umm Qasr, blocking expansion of the port.
Iraq is potentially the most powerful presence on the Arabian peninsula. Its rearmament is a sinister reflection of technical and managerial ability. This state's sense of mission preceded Saddam. He will use the new boundary to rouse national fury against what he calls the coalition's plot to destroy Iraq - all the more because the land Iraq loses is of no use to Kuwait.
The Demarcation Commission's mandate is to trace the border on the basis of vague past agreements and wobbly practice. However, it apparently considered the implications when it did not give Kuwait all of Umm Qasr but ran the line a bit to the south. Some Saudi leaders fear it will be a constant irritant between Iraq and Kuwait and help only Iran, which they see as the real danger. One UN official urges, privately, that Kuwait renounce its gain at Umm Qasr but has no hope it will. Egypt and opposition Ir aqis in exile warn against the move. The US seems undisturbed.
In a sense, Saddam is the only winner, with more plausibility as defender of Iraqi interests against a hostile conspiracy. A large, dynamic Iraq still faces a small, confused Kuwait. Kuwait's intention to build a fence along the border is pathetic. The long history of irredentism informs Saddam and whoever succeeds him that it unites a divided domestic scene and provides a hundred ways to penetrate, frighten, and demoralize a neighbor.