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AL FAW PENINSULA, Iraq (Reuters) - Fins and gills flash silver in the dawn light as Iraqi fishermen offload their catch, relieved to be back from waters jealously guarded by two of Iraq's erstwhile war-time foes, Iran and Kuwait.
Iraqi fishermen say they often run into trouble with the Kuwaiti and Iranian navies that patrol maritime borders contested by Iraq and its neighbors, caught on the front line of a dispute that has previously led to war.
"The problem is the borders. They're not defined and that leaves us open to being stopped, robbed and beaten," said fisherman Khalil Abood, standing among mounds of fish spread before buyers at southern Iraq's Al Faw Peninsula docks.
Fellow fisherman Yassin Yasser agrees.
"When we go out, everyone's after us, the Kuwaitis and the Iranians," he said, while expertly treading the flimsy planks between the boats and dock.
Control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, a stretch of water between Iran and Iraq that passes Faw and opens out into the Gulf, was one of the main reasons for the costly and bitter war between the two countries that lasted through most of the 1980s.
The dispute over the boundary is still not settled, and as recently as 2007 Iran detained 15 British sailors for straying into its territory. Britain said they were in Iraqi waters.
Kuwait and Iraq have also yet to define a sea border in settlement talks since Iraq's 1990 invasion. Some at the docks say Iraqis are viewed with hostility by many Iranians and Kuwaitis still bitter over Iraq's wars against them.
"They treat us this way because of the wars. You think they're going to smile at a person who might have killed their father or brother?" said Abu Ahmed, who was waiting to buy fish.
Memories of the Iran-Iraq war are strong in Faw, which was on the front line. The unsmiling face of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's late revolutionary leader, glares across the water at Faw's docks from a billboard in the Islamic Republic.
Yet relations with Iran were not always so strained, some fishermen said, adding that tensions surfaced in the chaos that engulfed Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003. Much of the south was controlled by militias, and smuggling was rife.
"We used to be on good terms with them, but the wave hello we used to get when we went into their waters has turned into a slap," said fisherman Abdel Khaleq, adding that he had been detained in Iran three times for entering its waters.
"Iraqis started to steal their boats, that's when things changed. There was drug smuggling. They're trying to protect their territory."
Iraq's own navy is tiny, and more concerned with protecting the country's oil terminals, from which it derives most of its revenues, than policing fishing and stopping smuggling.
Iraqis only play a small part in protecting the terminals. They are guarded mainly by Western navies at the request of Baghdad, much to the chagrin of Iran, which is as at loggerheads with the West over its nuclear program.
Another consequence of Saddam's fall was the end of state fishing subsidies, which squeezed their margins, fishermen said.
They say that has forced them to risk fishing in waters close to Iranian and Kuwaiti territory -- which they consider more bountiful than Iraq's -- or to knowingly trespass in the hope of a quick and easy catch.
"You have to go into their waters. The hungry person will do anything to feed himself," Yasser said.
At the Faw docks, groups of boys and young men carrying baskets waited in the early morning gloom for the fishermen, hoping to make a little money offloading the fish.
Once green with palm groves but flattened by years of war, there is little opportunity in Faw. Some fishermen had given up dodging the dangers and sold their boats or left them to rust.
But 15 year-old Abbas Saeed at least seemed eager to take their place, even though he said his uncle had been beaten so badly by Iranians he could no longer use one arm.
"I want to be a fisherman. I have to. What else is there?"
Editing by Lin Noueihed