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Baghdad returns to map of global airlines

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Baghdad is getting back on the map of international airlines after 20 years of violence as the prospect of multi-billion oil deals lures business travelers.

Passengers wait to go through customs at Baghdad International Airport August 2, 2010. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen

Gone are the days of hair-raising cork-screw landings -- dubbed death spirals -- as the bloodshed has ebbed from a peak of sectarian warfare in 2006 and 2007, though bombings and suicide attacks still occur regularly across Iraq.

Several foreign airlines started or announced plans to fly to Baghdad in recent months as firms slowly come back to Iraq seven years after a U.S.-invasion, attracted by oil contracts and infrastructure projects.

So far 12 mostly Arab carriers connect Baghdad with Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Bahrain, Jordan, Iran and other countries in the region, according to airport officials.

The latest destinations are Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Lufthansa plans to start to fly from Germany from September 30, while authorities are also in talks with Austrian Airlines, Dubai’s Emirates and a French carrier, said Adnan Blebil, head of Iraq’s civil aviation authority ICAA.

“Another airline from Dubai will be also coming,” Blebil said, busily shifting and signing papers while sitting in his airport office, where the phone rings almost non-stop.

Anticipating more growth, authorities plan to refurbish a third terminal that has been out of use as the Iraqi capital saw little traffic for 20 years due to U.N. sanctions, wars and much violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Airline officials say Baghdad routes are among the most profitable ones. Most planes are full despite tickets costing a fortune -- for example, $800 for an economy ticket to Jordan’s capital Amman, just some 800 km (500 miles) away.

They can also benefit from the troubles of state carrier Iraqi Airways. The government wants to dissolve the airline within three years to avoid asset claims by Kuwait over Saddam’s 1990-91 occupation of the smaller neighbor.

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To lure more international airlines Baghdad International Airport boasts some of the world’s toughest security checks to prevent car bombs and suicide attacks.

“These airlines have very high security standards. They won’t operate from an airport unless they’ve done a thorough physical check that all their requirements are met,” said Terminal Security Manager Paul Gillert.

Up to six search points have to be cleared, the first one more than a kilometer away where guards with dogs search every car and traveler.

No traveler can enter the terminal without a valid ticket and travel document so relatives accompanying them have to bid farewell outside the building, said Gillert, whose security firm G4S has some 700 staff on duty.

Iraq was mainly shut off from the world after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, triggering U.N. sanctions. Apart from Royal Jordanian flying to Amman there was little traffic to Saddam International, as it was called until 2003.

Despite the newcomers, there is still plenty of space for other airlines to come. The airport handled around 165,000 travelers from October to December 2009, according to ICAA.

Based on that trend Baghdad had more than 600,000 passengers in 2009, compared to 9.1 million at British city Birmingham, whose airport is a similar size. No full-year or comparison figures were available from ICAA officials.

The third Baghdad terminal will be refurbished so each has a capacity of 2.5 million passengers, Blebil said.

Officials boast the airport has largely avoided the violence that has plagued Iraq since the invasion but this comes at a price -- many travelers are exhausted when they reach the plane cabin after checks and more checks.

“If I would count the time I spent between coming to the airport and going through checkpoints, I would have landed in Iran by then,” said 33-year old Iranian businessman Ridha Miri, waiting to check in on a flight to Tehran.

Built in the early 1980s, the airport has seen, like most public buildings, roads and hotels in Iraq, little refurbishment after several wars and more than a decade of economic sanctions.

Telephone booths without telephones, fading colors on dusty walls and signs showing the way to anti-air raid shelters in the basement welcome travelers in the main departure hall.

As most air bridges do not work, planes tend to park away from the terminal, while passengers sometimes wait up to an hour to retrieve their luggage.

“Nothing has changed, the same decor, the same furniture, only the air-conditioning system is better in the past,” said Abu Yasir, a 37-year old Iraqi flying to Tehran.

“I don’t think they have renewed anything.”

As the latest innovations, a duty-free shop has opened and signs show the way to a “1st class restaurant” upstairs.

“One small cup of tea costs 90 cents. We don’t eat there but bring food from home,” moans Iraqi passenger Muhsin Radhi, 65.

Assistant restaurant manager Fadhil Abu Mohammad himself moans about security measures: His best customers have now been banned from entering the terminal -- U.S. soldiers from nearby bases enjoying a meal at night.

“We used to keep the restaurant open until late hours at night, sometimes until 4 am,” he said.

Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Editing by Angus MacSwan