Iraq plans to build a multimillion-dollar international airport near the southern city of Najaf, a holy center for Shiite Muslims, that would be financed largely by a low-interest loan from Iran, according to Iraq's transportation minister.
"If the security situation in Baghdad remains unstable, flights that currently go there could be shifted to Najaf instead," the minister, Salam Maliki, said in an interview this week. "The funding will come from a soft loan from Iran, and it could open as soon as in the next four months."
The facility, which Maliki said would cost an estimated $20 million to $25 million, would largely serve religious pilgrims traveling to and from Iran. Maliki said it would also link the region to other countries and improve access to a range of tourist attractions. Najaf, which is 90 miles south of Baghdad, and nearby Karbala are home to several of the shrines deemed holiest to Shiites.
The funding for the airport, along with a second initiative that Maliki said would secure the return of Iraqi aircraft stored in Iran since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, underscores the broad and still-emerging ties between Iraq's Shiite-led government and the Shiite clerics who rule Iran.
That relationship -- and the perception of heavy Iranian influence on Iraqi affairs -- has drawn expressions of concern from secular Iraqis, U.S. officials and leaders of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority. The initiatives also come at a time when the committee drafting Iraq's new constitution is debating political and economic autonomy for regional enclaves such as the Shiite-dominated south, a concept generally opposed by Sunni leaders.
Iraq and Iran waged a ravaging, eight-year war in the 1980s. Many officials in Iraq's current government lived in exile in Iran during that period, remaining there until the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose government was composed largely of Sunnis.
"In general, no country gives this kind of loan without other interests," said a Sunni politician who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think this doesn't go without something in return."
The newly arrived U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, accused Iran during a news conference Monday of taking actions that undermine Iraqi security.
"Iran is working along two contradictory tracks. On the one hand, Tehran works with the new Iraq. On the other, there is movement across its borders of people and material used in violent acts against Iraq," Khalilzad said. "We welcome good relations between Iraq and all its neighbors, but activities inconsistent with such relations must stop."
Maliki also said his office was negotiating the return of 153 civilian and military aircraft dispatched to Iran 14 years ago to save them from bombardment in the early days of the Gulf War. Iran's refusal to give them back embarrassed the Iraqi government and has forced Iraq's lone airline, Iraqi Airways, to rent all but two of the jets in its fleet, Maliki said.
A team of technicians will travel to Tehran as soon as this week to examine the condition of three passenger jets that Iran has agreed to relinquish.
"We currently have a good dialogue with Iran," Maliki said. "If we can do it, we will have solved a big problem."
Iraqi Airways on Wednesday will begin flights between Baghdad and Istanbul, the airline's third foreign destination. The airline already flies to Amman, Jordan, and Damascus, Syria, and by Sept. 1, Maliki said, it could start flights to London from Baghdad and to the southern city of Basra. Connections to Lebanon, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also are under discussion.
Maliki, 32, once served as a representative of Moqtada Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose militia battled U.S. troops in Najaf and Baghdad a year ago. Last week, Maliki ordered the duty-free store at Baghdad International Airport to stop selling alcohol to travelers, calling the airport a "holy and revered" part of Iraq.
Airport administrators initially flouted his order, and one official said a local court had backed their stance, an assertion that could not be independently confirmed. But the duty-free store is closed for renovations until its operators can meet with Maliki about the issue, the airport official said.
Special correspondent Khalid Saffar and correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad and staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.