Shatt al-Arab: danger zone between Iraq and Iran

BASRA - The waterway in which 15 British sailors were arrested by Iran on Friday forms the southern end of that country's long border with Iraq, and has long been strategic to the people living on both of its banks.

Known to Arabs and in the English-speaking world as the Shatt al-Arab and to the Iranians as the Arvand Roud, the waterway is a wide river through which the waters of both the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers flow into the Gulf.

It starts at Qurna, north of Iraq's second city of Basra, and ends some 200 kilometres (125 miles) south in the Gulf.

The strategic aspect of the waterway derives from its use over centuries as a trade route, and it has acquired global significance since the development of the modern oil industry.

The Shatt al-Arab is more strategic for Iraq than for Iran, since for the former it is part of only a small maritime coastline at the northern end of the Gulf. Iran, on the other hand, has hundreds of kilometres (miles) of coastline.

In peacetime, the Shatt is one of Iraq's economic lungs, providing the sole oil export route that does not depend on long overland pipelines that are especially vulnerable to sabotage.

But wars which have raged in the region in the past quarter-century -- between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War in 1991 and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- have turned the waterway into a war zone, leaving Basra port mostly idle and the waters strewn with wrecks.

The ports of Abu Floos, further down the Shatt, and Umm Qasr, on the Khor Abdullah channel, have handled what little sea trade there has been in more than 25 years of conflict.

Territorial disputes over the river go back to the Ottoman and Persian empires, with the first treaty signed in 1847 to delineate boundaries.

An agreement signed in Algiers in 1975 ruled that the frontier between the two countries ran through the median line, whereas Iraq claimed the whole waterway.

After initially accepting the deal, Iraq's then leader Saddam Hussein later tore it up, leaving the situation unresolved to this day.

03/23/2007 16:52 GMT

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