Choked with an eight-year accumulation of silt, and littered with some 70 stranded and disabled freighters and other ships caught in the cross fire of the Iran-Iraq war, the Shatt al Arab (Arab River) resembles more a maritime graveyard than the critical trade route it has been throughout history. Its main channel has been heavily mined and its banks lined with tank traps, barbed wire, and sandbagged bunkers.
The muddy brown waters meander south into the Gulf through marshes thick with reeds and dusty islands. They flow past the deserted freight yards of Basra, Iraq's only major port and second largest city. Farther south they flow past the war-scarred Iranian city Khorramshahr, Iran's devastated oil refinery at Abadan, and finally, the disused Iraqi oil export terminal at Faw.
Persians and Arabs have been fighting for control of the marshy region at the northern tip of the Gulf for centuries. Accounts of the clashes date back to the 1500s and the extended rivalry between the Ottoman Empire and the Persians.
Gulf war experts say the Shatt al Arab dispute was one of several factors that contributed to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's decision to invade Iran in late September 1980. (The primary factor was Iraq's aim of preventing the spread of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution to the 55 percent Shiite Muslim population of Iraq.)
According to some experts, by his move into Khuzestan - or ``Arabistan,'' as it was called by the invading Iraqis - President Hussein was hoping to reassert Arab authority over the Shatt al Arab, as well as the oil-rich swath of southwestern Iran where the large number of indigenous ethnic Arabs were expected to rebel and declare their liberation from Iran. It never happened.
Instead, the Iraqi Army bogged down and then pulled back as Ayatollah Khomeini's forces rallied, gained strength, and counterattacked.
Now, after almost eight years of war and hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, Iraq is hoping to win in negotiations what it was unable to establish by armed force.
According to diplomatic sources, Iraq will push for a provision in an Iran-Iraq peace accord stating clearly that the Shatt al Arab will be under total Iraqi control. The Iraqis will also ask that some 77 square miles of strategic territory on the central Iran-Iraq border near Naft-e-Shah and Qasr-e-Shirin be declared Iraqi territory.
The territory in the central front is important to Iraqi defenses because it represents the traditional invasion route to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, which lies only 60 miles across an open plain to the southwest.
Control of the Shatt al Arab is important to Iraq because it represents Iraq's only major trade route to open sea lanes. It is also considered in Baghdad to be a matter of Arab honor.
In total, the Shatt al Arab is 136 miles long, forming at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers well within Iraqi territory. The Iran-Iraq dispute centers on the southernmost 43 miles of the waterway before it enters the Gulf. It is in this section, in an area stretching roughly from the confluence of Iran's Karun River and the Shatt al Arab south to the Faw Peninsula, where the Iran-Iraq border follows the course of the river.
At issue is whether the border should be located on the eastern (Iranian) bank of the waterway as Iraq would like, or whether it should be located at the so-called Thalweg Line along the deepest part of the Shatt al Arab channel. This has historically been Iran's preference.
If the border is on the east bank, Iraq would control the waterway and be free to impose tolls and to require all ships to use Iraqi river pilots.
If the Thalweg Line is established, use of the waterway would be subject to further agreement between Iran and Iraq. This, in the Iraqi view, would leave Iraq's primary trade route vulnerable to Iranian interference.
An Iraqi official argues that if control of the waterway is shared there would be nothing to stop Iran from dragging its feet or refusing to initiate cleanup operations to reopen the Shatt al Arab for commercial shipping. Any delay would mean a critical setback to Iraqi reconstruction efforts, while Iranian reconstruction efforts could proceed apace through Iran's Gulf ports.
``Iran has more than 20 ports but Iraq has only the Shatt al Arab,'' the Iraqi official says.
And there is more to the issue than legal rights and strategic vulnerabilities, sources here say. From Mr. Hussein's point of view the Shatt al Arab is an Arab river. Anything less than total Arab control over the river would be viewed as a blow to Arab honor and a trampling of Arab rights.
Legally, there are precedents on both sides of the issue for how to resolve the border dispute.
Precedents for Arab control over the waterway were established by the Ottomans, the British, and later by the Iraqi government. Treaties signed in 1847, 1914, and 1937 all recognized Arab or Iraqi control over the entire waterway.
But in 1975, Hussein reluctantly signed away Iraqi rights to the entire Shatt al Arab in a broader treaty negotiated with the then Shah of Iran. Under the terms of the so-called Algiers Accord, the Shah would end his support for the increasingly effective Kurdish rebels operating in northern Iraq.
The Shah also agreed to turn over to Iraqi control the disputed sections of territory Iraq claimed along the central border near Qasr-e-Shirin and Naft-e-Shah.
It was a hard bargain from Iraq's point of view, but at the time the Iraqi government was vulnerable and in no position to stand up to its Western-backed and heavily-armed neighbor, diplomatic and other sources say.
The Algiers Accord held through the late 1970s, although the Shah never did turn over to Iraq the disputed sections of territory on the central border.
Following Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, the government in Tehran once again began supporting Iraqi Kurdish rebels.
And even more alarming to officials in Baghdad, the new Iranian government was playing an increasingly active role in trying to spark an Iranian-like Islamic revolution among Iraq's large Shiite population.
Citing Iran's renewed support for Iraqi Kurds and the fact that the Shah had never turned over the central border territories as called for in the Algiers Accord, Hussein unilaterally abrogated the treaty on Sept. 17, 1980, declaring full Iraqi control over the Shatt al Arab. As a result, heavy fighting broke out all along the waterway. Five days later, Iraqi troops crossed the Shatt al Arab and invaded Iran.
Iran is expected to argue in Geneva that the 1975 Algiers Accord remains a binding treaty between Iran and Iraq. Ironically, this would mean that the Islamic Republic is apparently prepared to turn over the disputed territories on the central border in exchange for continued control over part of the Shatt al Arab waterway.
Some analysts have suggested that having gained the central territories, the Iraqi position on the Shatt al Arab may soften by accepting the Thalweg Line but insisting on ironclad guarantees from Iran for freedom of navigation in the waterway.