Iraq today announced the reopening of Baghdad’s international airport after 10 years of enforced closure, but the move remained symbolic given the lack of prospects for a lifting of U.N. sanctions in the near future.
An Iraqi Airways plane carrying passengers from western Iraq landed at a deserted Saddam International Airport during the climax of an official ceremony.
Iraqi officials took reporters on a tour of the facility with its refurbished passenger terminal, including duty-free shops.
Civilian air traffic at the airport ceased when international sanctions were imposed on Iraq days after President Saddam Hussein sent his forces into Kuwait in August 1990. That made Baghdad among the few capitals in the world inaccessible by scheduled international flights.
Iraq says there are no United Nations Security Council resolutions, governing the 1991 Gulf War cease fire, that prevent Baghdad from flying civilian planes into and out of the country.
“Our message to all friends … is that they are welcome to use this airport,” Transport Minister Ahmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil told reporters at the airport.
“There is absolutely no [U.N.] decision to ban flights to and from Iraq. This is an American, British and Zionist decision,” he said, adding that several airlines from friendly states had expressed willingness to fly to Iraq.
Civil Flights Breach Sanctions
The U.N. sanctions committee on Iraq maintains that civil flights to and from Iraq are an economic resource whose reinstatement would breach the sanctions regime.
Iraq dispersed 37 passenger airliners to foreign airports shortly before the Gulf War to protect them against possible bombing. They have been stranded at those airports since.
The sanctions committee has previously turned down a request from Baghdad to fly the airliners home to Iraq.
Since 1997, Iraq has defied U.N. sanctions by sending civilian planes laden with Muslim pilgrims to perform the Haj in Saudi Arabia.
The Haj, a pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site in Saudi Arabia, is considered a religious obligation for practicing Muslims.
Iraqi officials say pro-Iraq French politicians and other figures plan a sanctions-busting flight to Baghdad next month.
U.S. Lashes at Belgian Professor
Criticism of the U.N. sanctions has been mounting since the world marked the 10th anniversary of the Gulf War, August 2. In Geneva today, the U.S. lashed out at a U.N.-commissioned report by a Belgian international law professor that called the U.N. trade sanctions against Iraq illegal.
In a report to the U.N. Human Rights Subcommission that is now meeting in Geneva, Marc Bossuyt said the sanctions, which were imposed on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, were “unequivocally illegal.”
Bossuyt also said in his report that the sanctions were to blame for a humanitarian disaster in Iraq “comparable to the worst catastrophes of the past decades.”
George Moose, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, told the U.N. forum that Bossuyt’s claim that the sanctions were illegal was “incorrect, biased and inflammatory.”
“The United States has worked hard to ensure that the welfare of the Iraqi people is protected, in stark contrast to the appalling behavior of an Iraqi regime which has shown itself to be completely insensitive to the suffering of its own people,” Moose said.
The United States strongly opposes any lifting of sanctions, which have now entered their 11th year, and maintains that Saddam Hussein is responsible for the suffering of his people.
Iraqi officials say that a U.N. oil-for-food deal that allows Baghdad to pay for essential food and medicine supplies through crude oil exports, but has been dogged by delays, has done little to alleviate the people’s suffering.
Iraq has rejected a U.N. resolution, which could ease the sanctions if Baghdad allowed the return of international arms inspectors checking on weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors have been barred since they left Iraq on the eve of a U.S.-British bombing campaign in December 1998.
Attacks in No-Fly Zone
Meanwhile, American and British jets today attacked air-defense targets in a northern Iraq “no-fly” zone in response to fire from Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles and guns, the U.S. military said.
It was the fourth such raid against targets in no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq in a week.
“Iraqi forces launched surface-to-air missiles and fired anti-aircraft artillery from sites north of Mosul” against aircraft that were routinely enforcing one of two such no-fly zones in Iraq, the U.S. European Command reported from Germany.
“Coalition aircraft responded to the Iraqi attacks by dropping ordnance on elements of the Iraqi integrated air defense system. All coalition aircraft departed the area safely.”
U.S. and British planes patrol the zones over southern and northern Iraq set up after the 1991 Gulf War. The zones, which Baghdad does not recognize, were imposed to protect a Kurdish enclave in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from possible attacks by Iraqi government forces.
The planes have been bombing targets in the zones frequently since Baghdad stepped up its defiance of the Western-imposed restrictions in December 1998. Iraq says 300 civilians have been killed and 900 wounded in these attacks.