- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

BAGHDAD — An embarrassing pay dispute between Iraq’s government and a British security firm came to a head yesterday and caused the shutdown of Baghdad International Airport, the country’s only reliable and relatively safe link to the outside world.

The Interior Ministry sent troops to reopen the dusty, sprawling stone-and-marble facility but called them back after confronting U.S. forces at a checkpoint on the dangerous airport highway, notorious for frequent insurgent attacks.

The closure of the French-built airport was thought to have been the first serious public conflict involving a Western contractor since the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein two years ago.

Meanwhile in Tal Afar, an insurgent bastion near the Syrian border in northwestern Iraq, two simultaneous car bombs killed five Iraqi soldiers. The bodies of 10 men — in civilian clothes, handcuffed and decapitated — were found on the city’s western outskirts, said Iraqi army Capt. Mohammed Ahmed.

American and Iraqi forces have the city surrounded and were expected to start a major offensive.

In the airport dispute, cooler heads appeared to prevail after the angry threat of force from the Interior Ministry.

“We ordered the forces to pull back after American forces were deployed at the first checkpoint on the road. We did not want to create a confrontation,” acting Transportation Minister Esmat Amer said.

He said negotiations with London-based Global Strategies Group, which has provided airport security since last year, continued late yesterday.

Brig. Gen. John Basilica Jr., commander of the 256th Brigade Combat Team of the Louisiana National Guard, said security remained “intact” at the airport.

The airport, about 10 miles west of Baghdad, is connected to the capital by a four-lane highway. During the March 2003 invasion, U.S. troops quickly seized the airport — which Saddam named for himself — and used it as a staging ground for their sweep into the capital. The facility was renamed Baghdad International Airport.

Keeping the airport open has become a matter of pride for the Iraqi government.

“This issue is related to Iraq’s sovereignty, and nobody is authorized to close the airport,” Mr. Amer said. He said the Cabinet had approved the dispatch of Interior Ministry troops.

Mr. Amer said the government has been trying since January to renegotiate a $4.5 million monthly contract that Global signed with the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority, which gave sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in 2004.

Global said its workers would continue securing the facility but had suspended other operations because the Transportation Ministry, which owns the airport, was six months behind in payments.

Mr. Amer confirmed Global had not been paid since contract talks resumed around Jan. 1.

In June, Global suspended airport operations for 48 hours for the same reason.

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