Baghdad Airport Closed in Debt Dispute

American soldiers refuel a tank at an Army base in Tall Afar, a northeastern city where U.S. forces kept up bombardment of an insurgent stronghold.
American soldiers refuel a tank at an Army base in Tall Afar, a northeastern city where U.S. forces kept up bombardment of an insurgent stronghold. (By Jacob Silberberg -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 10, 2005

BAGHDAD, Sept. 10 -- A standoff over a multimillion-dollar security bill owed by the Iraqi government shut down Baghdad's international airport Friday and severed Iraq's last safe route to the outside world, highlighting disarray in the country's administration and security forces and spurring U.S. troops to step in to maintain security.

With the closing, air travel joined electricity, clean water and security as essential services now in short supply in Iraq 2 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion. Many Iraqis and some foreign contractors, who are vital to rebuilding Iraq, blamed the transitional government for Friday's shutdown.

The dispute concerned a payment, now totaling $36 million, owed British-based Global Strategies Group for running the airport's security. The $4.5 million monthly contract was signed by Iraq's previous government and has gone unpaid since January as the current government tries to renegotiate it, Iraqi officials confirmed. Global shut down airport operations for 48 hours in June in a dispute over the same contract.

On Friday, Global's security contractors turned back would-be passengers, shutting down travel. But they maintained their posts around the airport, guarding the airport road, which was one of Iraq's most frequently bombed routes until the U.S. military intensified its presence there, and the airport itself, which insurgents have not managed to hit.

"Make a U-turn. There are no flights today," a Global guard at a sandbagged, concrete-walled checkpoint told one traveler, a police officer with luggage in the back of the car and a ticket in hand for a training seminar in neighboring Jordan.

"Why?" the man asked, demanding to know when he could fly. "We don't know," the guard answered. "We just need you to turn around."

The news caught more than travelers by surprise; top Iraqi officials from the Transportation Ministry, called at midmorning for comment, said they were unaware of the closing.

By late afternoon, U.S. troops had set up their own impromptu checkpoint by parking Humvees across the airport road and stopping each vehicle to check for IDs. Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, said the Iraqi government had asked the Americans to step in.

Acting Transportation Minister Esmat Amer vowed to send Iraqi troops to force a reopening of the airport. "This issue is related to Iraq's sovereignty. Nobody is authorized to close the airport," Amer told the Associated Press.

The ministry dispatched its police, only to call them back after they reached the American checkpoint. "We did not want to create a confrontation," Amer said. Officials from the Interior Ministry also briefly appeared at the checkpoint, guards said.

Government officials said throughout the day that the airport would reopen imminently and normal traffic would resume. By early Saturday, however, it was unclear when that would happen, although a spokesman for Global said the airport would reopen Saturday at 8 a.m.

The shutdown was more than an inconvenience. Insurgent attacks, bandits and the numerous armed men of murky affiliation on Iraq's roads made driving out of the country gravely dangerous for Iraqis and almost impossible for foreigners. Disappointed travelers, including parents with children returning or leaving home after summer breaks and a doctor who needed to send a sick 5-year-old to India for surgery, besieged travel agents.

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