Iraq reopens airport closed since Gulf War

BAGHDAD, Iraq - After 10 years of a U.N. ban on flights to Iraq, the international airport in Baghdad has reopened for business - with no aircraft, passengers or cargo.

Transport and Communications Minister Ahmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil said the Saddam International Airport and its facilities opened Thursday. He said Iraq is ''expecting the arrival of aircraft'' from friendly countries, but he did not elaborate.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela received a red-carpet welcome at the airport last week when he was ferried there from the Iranian border in President Saddam Hussein's helicopter.

Chavez was the first head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. President Abdurrhman Wahid of Indonesia has said he would visit Baghdad in coming months.

A 1990 U.N. Security Council resolution imposing, among other things, a ban on flights to and from Iraq has been disputed but invariably observed. Chavez did not violate the U.N. sanctions because he crossed the border with Iran in a car.

State-run newspapers have reported that French activists opposed to the sanctions plan an embargo-busting flight to Baghdad next month.

The airport was last used for a commercial flight hours before the outbreak of the Gulf War. Since then, only a few planes have landed, mainly carrying humanitarian aid.

Iraq flew its fleet of 15 Boeing aircraft to Jordan, Tunisia and Iran for safekeeping shortly before the war. Its efforts to bring the jets home have failed and the planes now may be too old to fly.

With no aircraft, the national carrier has kept its 2,300 staff busy by selling food and drinks to the public or using airport facilities to repair equipment and machines for both the state and private sectors. Iraqi Airways offices in Baghdad have turned into communications centers and food stores.

Iraq views its expanding links with the outside world, particularly through the U.N.-approved oil-for-food program, as a sign that the sanctions imposed on it for invading Kuwait in 1990 are crumbling.

Under the U.N. sanctions, Iraq is allowed to sell its oil provided the proceeds go to food, medicine and other urgent needs.

U.N. sanctions remain in place until Baghdad complies with U.N. demands to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction and cooperate fully with U.N. weapons inspectors.

Last week, Iraq reopened rail links with Syria, a traditional Middle East foe - another sign that trade ties between the two Arab countries, ruled by rival factions of the Baath party, are improving steadily.


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