Iraq Passenger Flights Defy No-Fly Zones

Iraq sent domestic passenger flights carrying 154 people into skies patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes today, the first challenge of its kind to the no-fly zones that Iraq considers infringements on its sovereignty.

Two planes left Baghdad at 1 p.m. local time bound for Basra in the southern no-fly zone and Mosul in the northern zone, the official Iraqi News Agency reported. They returned safely to Baghdad about four hours later, the agency said.

Resumption of Service

Iraq, which says the flights mark the resumption of regular passenger service to the cities, used Russian-made military cargo planes for the flights — an Antonov with 42 passengers to Mosul and an Ilyushin with 114 passengers to Basra.

The resumption of the flights, which Iraq announced on Oct. 30, came nearly a decade after Iraq’s fleet of 15 Boeing airliners was moved to Jordan, Iran and Tunisia to escape bombing during the 1991 Gulf War. They remain abroad.

Passengers aboard the inaugural flights included officials and journalists who returned with the planes to Baghdad. Thousands of people had gathered to welcome the planes on arrival in Basra and Mosul, according to INA.

Transport Minister Ahmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil said flights will take off daily to the two cities.

U.S.: Violations Since 1998

The United States says Iraqi military planes have violated the zones often with quick in-and-out forays since December 1998, when Iraq began challenging the patrols. The new challenges — though in military aircraft — marked the first civilian flights into the zone.

The U.S.-British patrols bar fixed-wing Iraqi aircraft or helicopters from entering the zones, but there was no word today on whether Iraq had given Britain and the United States advance notice of the domestic flights.

“We will continue to monitor closely any Iraqi aviation to determine whether it poses a threat to our forces, Iraq’s neighbors or the Iraqi people,” a U.S. State Department official said speaking on condition of anonymity. “We reiterate that the Iraqis should notify the U.N. of all civilian flight schedules and routes no less than 48 hours in advance of each flight.”

In Egypt, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that “these flights will continue … since the aim of these flights is to destroy the American-British criminal act of imposing the no-fly zones.”

Are No-Fly Zones Legal?

The United States and Britain maintain the no-fly zones are needed to protect Kurdish and Shiite Muslim minorities from Iraqi forces. Iraq says the zones, which are not mandated by the United Nations, violate its sovereignty and international law. Iraq has been firing missiles and anti-aircraft artillery at the U.S. and British warplanes.

The resumption of domestic flights follows the arrival in Baghdad of dozens of international flights from non-governmental organizations and foreign countries seeking an end to U.N. sanctions imposed to punish Iraq for invading Kuwait in 1990.

The U.S. State Department warned Friday that foreign aircraft flying into Iraq should avoid the no-fly zones because of “aggressive Iraqi activities” in these areas.

Spokesman Richard Boucher said aircraft flying anywhere in Iraq could face danger but that the no-fly zones are of a particular concern. But Boucher stopped short of saying whether U.S. and British warplanes policing the zones would intercept Iraqi passenger planes.

Iraqi Airways, the country’s national carrier, is charging $13 per passenger to Basra, 343 miles south of Baghdad, and $11 per passenger to Mosul, 250 miles north of the capital.