BAGHDAD, Iraq – A standoff over a multimillion-dollar security bill owed by the Iraqi government shut down Baghdad’s international airport Friday and severed Iraq’s last safe route to the outside world, highlighting disarray in the country’s administration and security forces and spurring U.S. troops to step in to maintain security.
With the closing, air travel joined electricity, clean water and security as essential services now in short supply in Iraq 2 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion. Many Iraqis and some foreign contractors – vital to rebuilding Iraq – blamed the transitional government for Friday’s shutdown.
The dispute concerned a payment, now totaling $36 million, owed British-based Global Strategies Group for running the airport’s security. The $4.5 million monthly contract was signed by Iraq’s previous government and has gone unpaid since January as the current government tries to renegotiate it. Global shut down airport operations for 48 hours in June in a dispute over the same contract.
On Friday, Global’s security contractors maintained their posts around the airport but turned back would-be travelers – shutting down travel without actually leaving unguarded either the airport road, which was one of Iraq’s most-bombed routes until U.S. military greatly intensified its presence there, and the airport, which insurgents have not managed to hit.
The news caught more than travelers by surprise; top Iraqi Transportation Ministry officials, when called at midmorning for comment on the closing, said they had not known about it.
By late afternoon, U.S. troops had set up their own impromptu checkpoint by parking Humvees across the airport road and stopping each vehicle to check for IDs. Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, said the Iraqi government had asked the Americans to step in.
Acting Transportation Minister Esmat Amer vowed to send Iraqi troops to force reopening of the airport.
The ministry dispatched its police, only to call them back after they reached the American checkpoint. “We did not want to create a confrontation,” Amer said. Interior Ministry officials also briefly appeared at the checkpoint, guards said.
Government officials said throughout the day that the airport would reopen imminently and normal traffic resume. By early today, however, it was unclear when that would happen.
The shutdown was more than an inconvenience. Insurgent attacks, banditry and the numerous armed men of murky affiliation on Iraq’s roads make driving out of the country gravely dangerous for Iraqis and almost impossible for foreigners. Disappointed travelers – including parents with children returning or leaving home after summer breaks and a doctor who needed to send a 5-year-old to India for surgery – besieged travel agents.
The shutdown has the potential to create major headaches for companies doing business in Iraq, said Ron Cruse, president and chief executive of Springfield, Va.-based Logenix International LLC, a logistics firm with contracts here.
Cruse also said he was concerned about the precedent set for dealings between Iraq ministries and foreign companies, at a time when the Iraqis are taking over the management of an increasing number of contracts. “Contractors are not looking forward to doing business with the ministries for exactly this reason,” Cruse said.
Contractors, particularly security firms, play a major role in Iraq, and their presence eases the demands on both the rebuilding Iraqi security forces and the 140,000 U.S. troops here.