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As far as I understand it, the problem isn't with Firebird, per se, as with a peculiar quirk of GTK2, which Firebird uses for it's UI. Apparently, GTK2 programs don't register their class properly with the server (or something... I'm no expert in the inner workings of X, this is just what others have told me), and as a result, none of what you've put in your .imwheelrc is going to affect any GTK2 program, Firebird included.
The solution, which works fine for me, at least, is to include your instructions under the header "(null)". This will cause Firebird to get the hint, and your side buttons should work properly. Like so:
Well, every GTK2 program receives the keyevents, yes. I don't think (though I'm not 100% sure) that any programs which properly register their class handle would be affected. In other words, the "(null)" class isn't going to have any affect on anything other than GTK2 programs. You'd need to have the traditional ".*" to affect all other programs.
From my understanding, it's a communication problem: GTK2 programs don't properly identify themselves to the server. It's not a problem with GTK2 "overriding" imwheel; it's an issue of imwheel not knowing how to communicate with GTK2 at all, short of the inelegant fix of the "(null)" trick.
As for why the Firebird team don't designate buttons 6 and 7 as back and forward... I dunno, really. The only thing I can think of is that it might create some "out-of-the-box" problems with the scroll wheel, until you run xmodmap and sort things out. But there may be deeper problems with X's mouse management or something... again, I'm hardly an expert.