BAGHDAD — Most of the international airlines flying to Iraq canceled flights to Baghdad on Tuesday after bullets hit a plane as it was landing, injuring a child passenger and raising fears for the safety of travelers.
Iraqi officials described the incident Monday as “minor” and urged carriers not to cancel flights, which are considered lifelines for the capital.
They said that the three shots that hit a Flydubai flight during its descent were fired from an area south of Baghdad International Airport — located west of the capital — and that forces had been dispatched to investigate.
Many airlines swiftly suspended services, including Royal Jordanian, Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines and Turkish Airlines, as well as Flydubai and three other United Arab Emirates-based airlines: Etihad Airways, Air Arabia and Emirates. The airlines did not say when flights would resume.
Transport Minister Bakr al-Zubaidi, speaking at a news conference at the airport, insisted that the facility is safe and urged the airlines to return. He said the pilot had not even been aware of the incident until after the plane landed.
The national carrier Iraqi Airways continues to operate, he said, and flights from Iran were expected later Tuesday.
Baghdad airport is one of the few ways out of the country for people living in and around the capital because the Islamic State insurgency has made road travel dangerous. Air service remained in place at other Iraqi cities with international connections: Irbil in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north, and Najaf and Basra south of Baghdad.
The Baghdad airport’s importance was underscored last summer by President Obama, who identified its defense as one of the main missions of the first 700 troops dispatched to Baghdad in response to the escalating Islamic State threat.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman refused to comment on whether the incident would affect diplomatic or military operations, which also rely on the airport as a transit hub.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi blamed strong winds, which forced the pilot to stray from the usual flight path toward an area where insurgents are known to operate.
“Such an incident affects one in 1,000 flights and occurred as a result of exceptional circumstances,” Saad al-Hadithi told Iraq’s al-Sumeria television network. “The threat to airport security is practically nonexistent.”
Also on Tuesday, Sunni tribal leaders claimed that as many as 70 Sunnis had been massacred by Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias in the village of Barwanah in violence-racked Diyala province. The attack, tribal leaders said, occurred after Shiite militia groups claimed that they had defeated the Islamic State in the province, which is northeast of Baghdad.
Government officials put the number of dead at 39 and described them as Islamic State supporters killed by Sunni tribesmen fighting alongside the government.
The incident highlighted how military campaigns against the Islamic State also risk reigniting the sectarian violence that engulfed many parts of Iraq, including Diyala, in past years.
Sly reported from Istanbul.