- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2008

Iraqis reclaimed a small but symbolically significant patch of sovereignty with the certification of the first three civilian air-traffic controllers for Baghdad International Airport, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said.

Mrs. Peters and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) acting Administrator Bobby Sturgell were on hand at the airport for Thursday’s ceremony to help present the controller certifications.

The FAA oversaw the Iraqi training program, which is expected to certify an additional 22 Iraqi air-traffic controllers in the next few months.

“I think it’s very much a signal to Iraqis, a tangible sign of progress,” said Mrs. Peters from Kuwait after leaving Iraq.

Transportation - from the rebuilding of roads, bridges and port facilities to the revival of Iraq’s national airline - “is really one of the bright spots” in Iraq’s reconstruction, she added.

The Baghdad airport was a potent symbol of the country’s difficult struggle in the early days after the U.S.-led military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003. Planes took a corkscrew path to the landing strip to avoid insurgent missile attacks and the drive from the suburban airport to downtown Baghdad was considered among the most dangerous trips in the country.

Mrs. Peters said the Department of Transportation has had a team of 50 officials dedicated to upgrading Iraq’s airports, training aviation personnel and improving air-traffic facilities.

The FAA has invested $8.5 million in upgrading the Baghdad airport since 2003.

Despite the progress, Mrs. Peters acknowledged she heard frequent concerns from Iraqi officials on her one-day trip about the need to improve basic security to speed economic reconstruction.

“To a person, they said that was their top priority. There has been progress, but it’s still relatively fragile, and we need to make more,” she said.

Reviving the decrepit Iraqi National Airways, which was literally grounded by economic sanctions and mismanagement dating back to Saddam’s regime, has been a clear priority for the new Iraqi leaders.

The government last month announced a $5.5 billion deal with U.S. aviation giant Boeing to buy up to 55 new commercial passenger planes, including at least 10 of the Chicago-based company’s 787 “Dreamliners.” Delivery of the first Boeing 737s from the contract are expected by 2012.