Gulf Airlines line up to fly into Iraq

airlines are returning to Iraq as growing security and stability replace the years of strife that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.

A handout photo of Elite Aviations at Abu Dhabi International Airport (Couretsy: Abu Dhabi Airports Company) *** Local Caption ***  ELITE AVIATIONS 01.jpg
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Gulf airlines are returning to Iraq as growing security and stability replace the years of strife that followed the 2003 US-led invasion. The Abu Dhabi-based Elite Aviation, in partnership with the German charter airline Blue Wings, is working towards starting flights from Baghdad and one other Iraqi city to Abu Dhabi this month, officials said.

Bahrain's Gulf Air has announced it will operate three services between Bahrain and Iraq beginning next month. The moves comes after the US-led "surge" in 2007 - which involved bringing an additional 20,000 soldiers to Iraq and extending the tours of 4,000 marines - led to a marked reduction in civil unrest and attacks on security forces. Samer Majali, the newly installed chief executive of Gulf Air, said: "We are creating a connection that is essential for the economic redevelopment of Iraq and enables us to take full advantage of the rapid growth Iraq will witness as global business and cultural links into the country develop."

From its base in Manama, Gulf Air will fly to Baghdad five times a week, starting on September 1, using a single-aisle Airbus A320, with plans to expand to a daily service in the future. Late next month it also plans to add flights to the holy city of Najaf and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. "There is a clear demand for a direct service from Bahrain and we have also ensured that our Iraq service will complement our feeder services from Europe and in particular London, which will enable us to capture intercontinental traffic," Mr Majali said.

Elite Aviation, a start-up airline that flies scheduled passenger services between Abu Dhabi and two German cities, is planning the first service between Iraq and the UAE capital to cater to both businesspeople and Iraqis living in the UAE, said Juergen Fiebig, the chief executive. The company is awaiting its UAE airline licence, and in the meantime has partnered Blue Wings to use the German airline's aviation licence on its routes.

Elite brought forward its plans to fly to Iraq after Silver Air, which operated charter flights between Dubai and Baghdad, suspended the route recently, Mr Fiebig said. "We're under a lot of pressure to start faster." The airline, which hopes to add other European destinations this year, is part of the Elite Group, owned by the al Hashemi family. Other operators between the UAE and Iraq are Kurdistan Airways and Jupiter Aviation of Sharjah.

The resumption of air services reflects growing ties between Iraq and its Gulf neighbours, particularly with the Abu Dhabi Government. Abu Dhabi announced in July last year it would forgive a US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) debt owed to it by Iraq, a hangover from the Saddam era. In October, Al Maabar International and Etisalat said they would be putting hundreds of millions of dollars into Iraq's property and telecommunications markets respectively, the same day that Baghdad received a surprise visit from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

Iraq's civil aviation infrastructure is being rebuilt after decades of decay under the Saddam regime and the destruction of assets during the US-led invasion. Last year, Iraqi Airways announced a $5.5bn order with Boeing for 30 narrow-bodied 737-800 aircraft and 10 wide-bodied 787 Dreamliners. Boeing is also a consultant with the government, advising civil aviation administrators on rebuilding the aviation sector.

A vastly improved security situation is encouraging foreign carriers to return to Baghdad International Airport, formerly Saddam International Airport. It had fallen into disrepair during the Saddam regime, partly because of UN-imposed sanctions, and it was heavily damaged during the war. In 2003 and 2004 there were incidents when airborne military transport planes and private air cargo aircraft were hit by insurgent-fired missiles. The airport was later repaired as part of a $17.5m contract from the US Agency for International Development.

In the past few years, airlines resuming or announcing plans to fly to Iraq have included Nordic Airways, bmi, Austrian Airways, Blue Wings and Turkish Airlines.