BAGHDAD (AFP) – The first flight by a European carrier in 20 years landed in Baghdad on Sunday, marking an important step for a country looking to post-war reconstruction following the ravages of the 2003 US-led invasion.
The Airbus A319 operated by France’s Aigle Azur airline from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport touched down at 6:00 am (0300 GMT), carrying on board France’s Trade Minister Anne-Marie Idrac and 111 passengers, including 40 French businessmen, officials said.
Commercial flights between the two capitals, previously operated by national carrier Air France, were suspended after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 that led to an embargo.
“This is an historic event because this is the first scheduled direct service by a European airline between a Western capital and Baghdad for 20 years,” France’s ambassador to Iraq, Boris Boillon, said before Sunday’s flight.
The arrival comes amid hopes of a boost in historically close business links between France and Iraq.
Aigle Azur, owned by the Franco-Algerian Idjerouidene family, said it would begin twice weekly flights starting mid-January.
The airline is getting the jump on other European carriers considering the route, which is potentially lucrative thanks to a growing desire among Western businesses to grab a share in oil-rich Iraq’s post-war reconstruction.
Also on Sunday, an Iraqi civil aviation official announced the first direct flights between London and Baghdad by a private firm.
The Al-Nasr company of Iraqi businessman Hussein al-Khawam “will fly its first Baghdad-London flight on November 3, but that date is not finalised,” said Nasser Hussein Badr, civil aviation director at the transport ministry.
A Boeing 737 leased from a European firm would initially fly the route, he said, without specifying what name the airline would bear.
“For us, Iraq is one of the countries with the greatest potential, behind China and India,” said Gilles Viry, an executive with French construction giant Fayat, who was on the inaugural Aigle Azur flight.
The French trade minister was due to sign trade agreements notably on agriculture and investment protection during her visit to Iraq.
“It’s unthinkable for French businesses not to take part in the reconstruction of Iraq,” Idrac said before leaving for Baghdad.
The interest in aviation and business also indicate the improving security situation in Iraq, where bombs, killings and kidnappings remain routine, but significantly less than a peak in 2006 and 2007.
More than 300 international firms are taking part in a 10-day international exhibition that opens in Baghdad on Monday, featuring companies from every sector other than defence.
Aigle Azur Vice President Meziane Idjerouidene, who also was on board the flight, said the new route would probably start by losing money but pick up in the medium term.
“I am very touched by the fact that our company will be contributing to the rebuilding of Iraq,” said an emotional Idjerouidene.
Aigle Azur is negotiating a code-sharing deal that would allow Air France-KLM also to offer flights to the Iraqi capital.
Germany’s Lufthansa, which flies to the city of Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, also had hoped to launch a direct flight to Baghdad, but said it had deferred due to insufficient demand.
France had close trade links with the regime of Iraq’s executed leader Saddam Hussein and was vehemently opposed to the March 2003 US-led invasion.
Today French business accounts for only one percent of foreign investment in Iraq.
France doubled its exports to Iraq in 2009 to 413 million euros (571 million dollars) but the figure is low given the estimated 600-billion-dollar cost of the country’s reconstruction.