First published on the Ministry of Defence Website on 21st Dec 2007
As British forces were handing over Basra Province last weekend, Iraqi airport staff were taking control of one of the country’s gateways.
Bustling with passengers like any other international departure lounge, the recent handover of Basra airport signalled a new era for the people of southern Iraq. For the first time since 2003 the airport is being run by Iraqis having taken four years of training and cooperation to get to this point.
For the staff this is the busiest time of year. Every year over 1.5 million pilgrims travel to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and back in order to undertake the ‘greater pilgrimage’ or the Hajj; one of the five pillars of Islam. And for Iraqis this year, the airport is key.
Group Captain Mike Wigston is the Officer Commanding 903 Expeditionary Air Wing, the unit which has been carrying out all the training of Iraqi airport staff:
“It’s never been the gateway to South East Iraq that its designers thought it would be,” he said. “Now we’re on the threshold of that actually becoming reality and we’ve got a superb chance to use the Hajj period to showcase this to the locals as to what a precious commodity they’ve got on their doorstep.”
This year about 31,000 pilgrims travelled from Iraq, including over 3,600 by air from Basra. For Air Traffic Controller Mu’ayed Yousif, it’s a momentus occasion:
“We are very happy because we have returned to our jobs and we are very much looking forward to taking control of the tower.”
Every month there are over 250 civilian flights into and out of Basra by commercial airlines including Iraqi airways, Royal Jordanian, Jordan Integrated Air Cargo, Gulf International and Valan. Destinations they serve include Kuwait, Dubai, Jordan, Tehran and Bahrain, as well as a number of major Iraqi cities.
Airport Director, Mezxer Shnawah Zaheed, explained:
“My aim was to bring Basrah airport up to international standards. I’ve worked with maintenance to rebuild the airport, so that it is comparable to any other international airport in the world.”
International airlines will only land here if it’s safe. So the Royal Air Force has had teams on the ground training their Iraqi counterparts to internationally recognised standards in firefighting in the event of an incident on the airfield, and in border control, a key skill in a country still marred by sectarian violence.
The RAF has now handed over responsibility for the airport and the management and training of its staff to Iraqi control.
And after a successful Hajj, it’s hoped the international airport will bring wider trade and economic development to the country as a whole.
Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development, said of the airport handover:
“The growing number of passengers and planes using BIA represents a real step forward, both for the regional economy of Basrah, and more broadly for Iraq. We’ve seen a significant rise in capacity just in recent weeks with the Hajj and I think it represents a real opportunity for the regional economy here in Basrah now and in the future.”
It is hoped that both the handover of Basra Province and the airport to Iraqi control will bring the success that local people are striving for.