LONDON, AUG. 30 -- To make sense of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's claims that Kuwait is really part of Iraq, it helps to go back nearly 70 years to a meeting in a tent in the Arabian desert, where a British high commissioner named Sir Percy Cox drew what became the Kuwait-Iraq border.

The meeting had gone on for five grueling days with no compromise in sight. So one night in late November 1922, Cox, Britain's representative in Baghdad, summoned to his tent Sheik Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, soon to become ruler of Saudi Arabia, to explain the facts of life as the British carved up the remnants of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

"It was astonishing to see {ibn Saud} being reprimanded like a naughty schoolboy by His Majesty's High Commissioner and being told sharply that he, Sir Percy Cox, would himself decide on the type and general line of the frontier," recalled Lt. Harold Dickson, the British military attache to the region, in his memoirs.

"This ended the impasse. Ibn Saud almost broke down and pathetically remarked that Sir Percy was his father and mother who made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held and that he would surrender half his kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered."

Within two days, the deal was done. The modern borders of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were established by British imperial fiat at what became known as the Uqair conference. Britain had won, and everyone else believed they had lost.

In time, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait swallowed their pride and acceded. But for Iraq, denied a viable outlet to the Persian Gulf, the sense of injustice festered over three generations and was a major factor in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has offered many, sometimes contradictory rationales for the Aug. 2 invasion. But the one that has resonated most deeply in the hearts and minds both of his own people and of the Arab world in general is his claim to have redressed a wrong inflicted by British imperialism.

"The foreigner entered their lands, and Western colonialism divided and established weak states ruled by families that offered him services that facilitated his mission," he stated in an Aug. 10 address. "The colonialists, to ensure their petroleum interests . . . set up those disfigured petroleum states. Through this, they kept the wealth away from the masses of this nation."

One irony of Saddam's argument is that Iraq's borders, too, were drawn by the "colonialists."

Earlier this week, Saddam issued a decree declaring Kuwait to be Iraq's 19th province, renaming Kuwait City as Kadhima and naming a new district of northeast Kuwait after himself. "The branch has been returned to the tree trunk," he declared.

Although there is no consensus on the issue, many historians and analysts say Saddam technically has got it about half right. They say Iraq's legal claim to all of Kuwait, which is of dubious historical validity, was renounced by Saddam's own Arab Baath Socialist Party during its first brief spell in power in 1963. But Iraq never acceded to a specific borderline, and some believe it has valid historic and strategic reasons for claiming a small portion of northeast Kuwait.

Some Iraqi analysts expect that if Saddam feels compelled to withdraw from Kuwait, he will still seek to hold on to the two strategic islands of Bubiyan and Warba and the strip he now calls Saddamiyat Mitlaa. They note that his decree administratively separated the strip from the rest of Kuwait by placing it in Basra province -- tipping off his fallback position if the crunch comes.

But beyond the technicalities, Saddam has staked out what for many Arabs is very powerful emotional ground. They look upon Kuwait and the other tiny gulf sheikdoms as the most blatant products of a European imperialism that ultimately dismembered the Arab world, creating the strife-torn, artificial states of dubious legitimacy that today dominate the region.

"In the Iraqi subconscious, Kuwait is part of Basra province, and the bloody British took it away from them," said Sir Anthony Parsons, a former British ambassador to the United Nations who spent 30 years as a diplomat in the Middle East. "We protected our strategic interests rather successfully, but in doing so we didn't worry too much about the people living there. We created a situation where people felt they had been wronged."

Britain's ties to the gulf date back to the 18th century, when the British began setting up trading posts and strategic alliances along the coastal route to India. One of those places was Kuwait, an impoverished and obscure seaport that had been under the control of the sprawling Ottoman Empire but gradually had become the feudal domain of the nomadic Sabah clan.

For generations, the Sabahs skillfully played off the British against the Turks, seeking the protection of one or the other in times of trouble. Then in 1899, a new sheik, Mubarak Sabah, who took the throne after killing his two half-brothers, agreed to make Kuwait a formal protectorate of Britain in return for 15,000 pounds a year. The Ottoman Empire never gave up its claim of suzerainty over Kuwait but treated it as a semi-autonomous district and the Sabahs as Ottoman governors.

After World War I, Britain and France divided the spoils of the defunct Ottoman Empire, drawing new borders and installing ruling families loyal to the two European countries. One of the new states was Iraq, an amalgam that included three ethnically or religiously distinct former Turkish provinces -- Kurdish-dominated Mosul, Sunni Moslem Baghdad and Shiite Moslem Basra -- created in 1922.

"Woodrow Wilson had disappeared by then, and there wasn't much rubbish about self-determination," Parsons recalled. "We, the British, cobbled Iraq together. It was always an artificial state; it had nothing to do with the people who lived there."

Even before the discovery of oil, the new Iraq was the wealthiest, most politically sophisticated of the new Arab nations. What it lacked was access to the sea, something the British War Office deliberately had chosen to deny the new country to limit its influence in the gulf and keep it dependent on Britain.

"It was intentional, not by accident," said a London-based Iraqi political scientist who has studied British historical records on the making of Iraq. "It was British policy to prevent Iraq from becoming a gulf state because Britain thought Iraq would be a threat to its own domination of the gulf."

The issue was virtually ignored at the 1922 Uqair conference where the major dispute was over Saudi Arabia's borders with Iraq and Kuwait. Iraq was represented by a junior cabinet minister, Kuwait by a British political agent. Neither had much to say once Sir Percy decided where to put the markers, according to Dickson's account.

Still, Iraq never dropped the matter. Iraqi King Ghazi ibn Faisal proposed a union with Kuwait in the 1930s but was rejected by the Sabahs and their British protectors.

Two decades later, after the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in a bloody 1958 coup, Baghdad tried again. When Kuwait declared its independence in 1961 and British troops withdrew, Iraqi military ruler Abdul Karem Qassem massed troops on the Kuwaiti border in a dress rehearsal of the present conflict. The Iraqi troops pulled back after British troops rushed to the sheikdom, later to be replaced by Arab League forces.

Qassem blocked Kuwait's entry into the United Nations and the Arab League for two years. But when he was overthrown in 1963, the new ruling Baath Party -- forerunners of Saddam's regime -- came to terms with Kuwait, recognizing its independence and generally acknowledging its frontiers, although not a specific border line. Part of the deal, according to British gulf scholar J.B. Kelly, was an $85 million "loan" to Iraq from Kuwait, the first of many Kuwaiti attempts to buy Iraqi good will.

The new border never got settled, in part because Kuwait was reluctant to risk its ownership of the South Rumaila oil field, which extends across the frontier that existed until the Aug. 2 invasion. Iraq massed troops on the border again in 1973, and even seized some of northeast Kuwait, although it withdrew under the demand of the Arab League.

The Iraqi political scientist, who asked to remain anonymous because he has relatives in Iraq, said that even those at home who bitterly oppose Saddam's rule believe in the country's claim to part of Kuwait. "It's not Saddam's problem or Saddam's cause; it's every Iraqi's cause, even those who, like myself, are against Saddam and believe the invasion was totally wrong."

The scholar believes Saddam's goal in invading Kuwait was to gain control of the northeast strip plus the two strategic islands. By seizing the entire country, Saddam thought he would have Kuwait under his thumb and force its rulers to agree to cede the northern area, according to this analysis. But the Iraqi ruler badly miscalculated Western reaction. He now faces opposing forces determined to deny him any fruits of the invasion.

Depending on the outcome of the present crisis, the issue of Iraq's access to the sea could again go unresolved -- making yet another conflict with Kuwait or Iran inevitable, according to the scholar. "Iraq has to export oil to live, and to export oil we must have a port," he said. "Even if Saddam died today, the source of the problem would not end. It will arise again and again and again until there is a settlement."

By invoking the colonial past, Saddam has raised a much deeper issue of legitimacy. For if, as he claims, Kuwait is not really a country, then neither are the other British creations in the gulf -- Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia itself.

"The underlying problem is that six families, put in place by British imperialism and propped up by the West, control 34 percent of the world's oil reserves," said Dilip Hiro, a veteran Middle East author. "That's the real colonial legacy, and it's one that won't go away even if Saddam is put in his place."