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Plan to Reopen Basra's Airport Hits Turbulence

Coalition leaders envision it as a symbol of a new Iraq. But concerns about security and lack of demand have dimmed those hopes.

September 13, 2003|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — For years, Basra International Airport has been on a nonstop to nowhere, a gleaming edifice in the middle of the desert that had offered only one departure and one arrival a week.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, this nation's U.S.-led occupation administration, wants to take this massive white elephant and turn it into a symbol of the new Iraq -- a land that attracts many visitors, even tourists, where an arriving businessperson's biggest concern is what aperitif to order in first class.

There are just a couple of problems with introducing the first regular commercial passenger flights to Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The biggest is that there's still an armed resistance. The guerrillas keep shooting missiles at military planes in Basra and elsewhere. Although reopening the airport here would send a very positive message, the downing of a commercial airliner would set back U.S. efforts to stabilize the country.

Another issue is terrorism on the ground. The Basra and Baghdad airports each have only one main access road. No one can figure out how to safely ferry passengers in and out without leaving them prey to the improvised explosive devices that bedevil military patrols.

A third question is demand. Iraq is a long way from being stable enough to attract business travelers, let alone tourists. That is particularly true in this southern city of 2 million, a desperately poor area that had long been oppressed by ousted leader Saddam Hussein.

Physically, the airport is ready. The terminal floor, a stretch of imported Italian marble two football fields long, has been cleaned and polished. American contractors have repainted the runway stripes, reassembled the staff and brought in up-to-date avionics equipment.

The occupation authority had scheduled a late August opening, with speeches and dignitaries and media galore. A confidential memo issued by the British military, which controls Basra and its airport, said the event would provide "a symbol of reconstruction, a catalyst for economic growth, an opportunity for local employment, the rebirth of the [Civil Aviation Administration] in Iraq, a great reason to celebrate 'Iraq for the Iraqis' and possibly one of the first opportunities to display some national pride."

The opening of the airport would provide a point of entry into Iraq other than Baghdad, a six-hour drive from Basra. For those without access to humanitarian flights into Baghdad's international airport, the only other method has been long drives from Kuwait or Jordan that leave them vulnerable to bandits.

LOT Polish Airlines, one of the six carriers to win landing rights in Basra, was to be the first, arriving from Warsaw at 5:35 a.m. on Aug. 27. Gulf Air, based in Bahrain, announced its first flight would land Sept. 1.

Nothing happened.

"We got the impression there weren't many takers" for tickets, said Capt. Hisham Halawi, a spokesman for the British military. "We wanted to give the airlines more of a chance to generate more business -- to line up hotels, taxis, buses."

A spokesman for the U.S.-led administration, who spoke on condition that he neither be named nor quoted directly, gave a different reason. The cancellations, he said, were due to the need to have adequate security, customs and immigration procedures in place.

The most recent missile attacks, he added, would be factored into the overall security question. If security is the main reason for the delay, it's another example of how the U.S. authority's rebuilding plans have been sidetracked by the threat of attacks.

Surface-to-air missile launches against military planes are a common occurrence in Iraq. According to security reports, on Aug. 22 a missile was fired at a U.S. C-130 cargo plane climbing from the airport in the northern city of Mosul. On Aug. 30, a missile was fired at a C-130 at Baghdad's international airport, exploding about half a mile behind the plane.

About that same time, a missile was fired at a C-130 in Basra, according to a British aviation specialist at the base.

The most recent incident took place Sept. 6, when two missiles were fired at a C-141 cargo plane about 15 miles north of the Baghdad airport. According to a security report, the missiles detonated "well below" the plane.

To lessen the chances of being a target, military planes often sharply bank and roll while landing or taking off anywhere in Iraq. In Baghdad, smaller planes on humanitarian flights fly directly over the airport and then corkscrew in, keeping a tightly circumscribed flight zone.

Airlines have been taking the threat of missiles very seriously since November, when a charter flight full of vacationing Israelis was fired upon while taking off from the Kenyan resort city of Mombasa.

The attack, which was blamed on the Al Qaeda terrorist network, transformed the risk to commercial planes from theoretical to urgent. Congress has proposed equipping U.S. planes with antimissile systems; Israel reportedly is testing such a device.

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