- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

BASRA, Iraq — A Boeing 727 in the green-and-white markings of Iraqi Airways landed at the British-controlled airport in sweltering heat and taxied to the terminal past dozens of journalists and dignitaries — and one sacrificial goat, its neck cut, bleeding onto the tarmac.

The Saturday afternoon flight, carrying about 100 passengers from Baghdad, marked the return to domestic service of the reborn national airline, which has seen only sporadic service since 1991 as a result of the Persian Gulf war and ensuing sanctions.

New Iraqi Transportation Minister Salam al-Maliki welcomed the restoration of domestic air travel as a major milestone for the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Reorganized in 2003 in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi Airways began flying into the U.S.-controlled Baghdad International Airport from Syria and Jordan several times a week in October 2004.

But security concerns precluded domestic flights between any of Iraq’s major airports. The relative security of Basra made it an obvious choice as a first domestic destination as the airline slowly expands its routes.

Even so, airport security at the Basra airport is one of Mr. al-Maliki’s top priorities.

“We have security systems for departure and arrival,” he said, “and we employ a lot of police to guard it.”

Coalition troops patrol the perimeter of the airport, which now hosts British transport and patrol planes and a large force of British helicopters. An adjacent base, or enclave, is home to troops from Britain, Australia, Norway, Italy and other coalition countries.

Base commander Group Capt. Ian Wood, 45, said his troops are in the process of withdrawing from the airport and returning complete control to Iraqi authorities.

“We’re building our own passenger and freight terminals on the military enclave. We hope to move to the enclave in September,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, the coalition is training Iraqi air-traffic controllers to take over from Royal Air Force controllers and is helping refurbish the airport in preparation for a full reopening.

Currently, the airport is littered with construction materials and garbage, and only one of its luggage carousels works. Daily military flights mean a steady trickle of military personnel through its cavernous terminals.

Basra Airport was built in the 1980s by a German firm but saw only sporadic use before being abandoned several years ago.

It lacks freshwater and reliable electricity — problems endemic to the region — but Mr. al-Maliki said both power and water at the airport will be restored “in a few months.” By that time, he said, Iraqi Airways will have added regular service between Basra and the northern cities of Sulaymaniyah and Irbil.

As part of the expansion of air service in Iraq, Mr. al-Maliki is seeking the return of several Iraqi Airways aircraft that have been impounded in Jordan.

The minister didn’t volunteer the numbers and types of aircraft involved, but at least two 1980s-vintage Iraqi Airways Boeing 737s were spotted at Jordan’s Amman airport in January.

Anticipating restoration of domestic routes, the airline recently purchased two 737s and a 767.

A Basra-to-Baghdad flight costs about $75, but Mr. al-Maliki says the airline is working to lower the price to about $50.

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