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Baghdad airport shuttered over pay dispute
Updated: 2005-09-10 10:48

An embarrassing pay dispute between Iraq's government and a British security firm came to a head Friday and caused the shutdown of Baghdad International Airport, the country's only reliable and relatively safe link to the outside world, the Associated Press reported.

The Interior Ministry sent troops to reopen the dusty, sprawling stone-and-marble facility but called them back after confronting U.S. forces at a checkpoint on the dangerous airport highway, notorious for frequent insurgent attacks.

The closure of the French-built airport was believed to have been the first serious public conflict involving a Western contractor since the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein two years ago.

The United States has managed to keep its forces in Iraq — now at about 140,000 — to a minimum by hiring contractors for vast amounts of work the military normally would do. Congress has complained that oversight is lax and the U.S. government is routinely overcharged.

Meanwhile in Tal Afar, an insurgent bastion near the Syrian border in northwestern Iraq, two simultaneous car bombs Friday killed five Iraqi soldiers. The bodies of 10 men — in civilian clothes, handcuffed and decapitated — were found on the city's western outskirts, said Iraqi army Capt. Mohammed Ahmed.

American and Iraqi forces have the city surrounded and were expected to launch a major offensive.

The U.S. military reported killing 11 insurgents during raids over the past two days, and an estimated 80 percent of the city's 200,000 residents have fled. Iraqis claim to have captured 150 foreign fighters from Syria, though the U.S. military has not confirmed that figure.

Iraq issued a statement Friday hinting the operation was imminent.

"In response to the call for help by the people, tribes and government officials in the city of Tel Afar ... we are taking additional measures to ensure security and stability," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said.

In the airport dispute, cooler heads appeared to prevail after the angry threat of force from the Interior Ministry.

"We ordered the forces to pull back after American forces were deployed at the first checkpoint on the road. We did not want to create a confrontation," acting Transportation Minister Esmat Amer told The Associated Press.

He said negotiations with London-based Global Strategies Group, which has provided airport security since last year, continued late Friday. There was no report of progress, although Amer predicted a resolution by Saturday.

Brig. Gen. John Basilica Jr., commander of the 256th Brigade Combat Team of the Louisiana National Guard, said security remained "intact" at the airport.

Otherwise, the U.S. military, in an apparent attempt to play down the problem, said it had no information about the pay dispute or American and Iraqi force movements.

The airport, about 10 miles west of Baghdad, is connected to the capital by a four-lane highway once described by the State Department as one of the world's most dangerous roads. Safety along the thoroughfare has improved recently under the direction of a Louisiana National Guard unit.

One of Saddam's grandiose showcase projects, designed to handle up to 7.5 million passengers a year, the airport has fallen into disrepair. Huge windows looking out to a nearly empty tarmac appear to have gone unwashed for months.

A bas relief of Aladdin on a flying carpet welcomes passengers, whose voices now echo through the dusty, once-busy corridors and gates. Workers — a skeleton force — shuffle past closed shops and restaurants.

Iraqis who can afford it and foreigners overwhelming choose to fly in and out of the country, which is safer than driving but costly: $622 for a roundtrip to Amman, Jordan. Others can take a bus to Jordan, $25 each way but extremely dangerous because the route goes through insurgent-ridden Anbar province.

During the March 2003 invasion, U.S. troops quickly seized the airport — which Saddam named for himself — as they approached Baghdad, then used it as a staging ground for their sweep into the capital. The facility was renamed Baghdad International Airport.

Several U.S. bases are situated nearby, including Camp Victory, where Saddam is believed to be imprisoned awaiting trial on charges of crimes against humanity.

Keeping the airport open has become a matter of pride for the Iraqi government.

"This issue is related to Iraq's sovereignty, and nobody is authorized to close the airport," Amer, the acting Transportation Minister, told AP. He said the Cabinet had approved the dispatch of Interior Ministry troops.

Amer said the government has been trying since January to re-negotiate a $4.5 million monthly contract that Global signed with the U.S. Coalition Provision Authority, which gave sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in 2004.

Global said its workers would continue securing the facility but had suspended other operations because the Transportation Ministry, which owns the airport, was six months behind in payments.

"We're in continuing dialogue and we're hoping it'll be resolved as soon as possible," company spokesman Giles Morgan said, declining to give details.

Amer confirmed Global had not been paid since contract talks resumed around Jan. 1.

In June, Global suspended airport operations for 48 hours for the same reason.

The company also manages security at the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, home to Iraqi government offices, parliament, and the U.S. Embassy. It has about 1,100 employees, mainly former Nepalese and Fijian soldiers. About 500 Global workers staff the airport.

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