Saddam International Airport emerges from twilight zone

Published October 13th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Deserted terminals, empty duty-free shops and an air traffic control tower that controls nothing have been the order of the day for most of the past decade at Iraq's international airport. 

 

But the arrival of more than a dozen humanitarian flights at Saddam International Airport since it officially reopened on August 17 has heralded a welcome break for the airport hit by a UN air embargo as part of sanctions imposed on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. 

 

First opened in 1982, the airport now has three terminals whose halls are filled once more with the whirring of escalators and lifts when the flights come in. 

 

It presents a stark contrast to the best hospitals in the sanctions-hit state, where air conditioning does not work and the lifts remain padlocked, with no electricity to run them. 

 

But the airport's check-in hall and departure lounge, cafes and restaurants, travel and car hire agencies are still deserted. The duty-free shops offer imported products and local souvenirs. But there are no shoppers. 

 

The 10-year break in international air traffic is mirrored in the lack of traffic on the road linking it to the capital. 

 

"For almost 10 years, almost nothing has moved. So decided the United States," an information ministry official escorting journalists told AFP. 

 

"Down with America!" reads the graffiti scrawled in blood-red Arabic and English on the enormous columns at the airport's entrance and departure lounge. 

 

Since the reopening, three humanitarian flights from Russia and one from France have landed in Baghdad in defiance of the air embargo. 

 

The flights spurred on Arab solidarity flights and several countries -- Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen -- have also sent planes with humanitarian aid into Iraq since September 27. 

 

Lebanon and Sudan plan to follow suit this week, while Turkey has sent two planes in three days. 

 

But while the humanitarian missions have, in Iraqi eyes, confirmed the breakdown of the air embargo, Baghdad wants a full resumption of flights so its people are able to fly out themselves too. 

 

"We welcome the initiative of our Emirati brothers, but we hope they will soon re-establish a regular air link with Iraq," Commerce Minister Mohammad Mehdi Saleh told AFP when he greeted the first flight from a Gulf monarchy. 

 

"We hope that all will soon return to what it was before. We are holding talks with friendly countries to organise normal and regular flights," added Transport Minister Ahmad Mortada. 

 

"The air embargo has no legal justification," Mortada stressed, blaming Washington for all the fatal accidents on the hazardous 1,000-kilometre (625-mile) Baghdad-Amman highway, Iraq's main link with the outside world. 

 

Russia's Aeroflot said on October 2 it had signed a memorandum of cooperation with Iraqi Airways to allow regular flights to Baghdad once UN sanctions are lifted. 

 

Iraqi Airways, itself grounded since 1990, has been sending pilots and technicians to Malaysia and Jordan to train on planes built by the European consortium Airbus. 

 

But its fleet of some 15 planes remains stranded in Iran, Jordan and Tunisia. 

 

Calls by the Iraqi government for the return of the planes which Baghdad dispatched for safekeeping on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait have so far fallen on deaf ears. 

 

While welcoming the initiatives of the countries that have organised humanitarian flights to Baghdad, Health Minister Umid Medhat Mubarak warned that "22 million people cannot live off charity". – (AFP) 

 

© Agence France Presse 2000 

 

 

© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)

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