BASRA, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s transport minister has called for the closure of southern Iraq’s Basra International Airport, a move the British military said Monday threatens the economic recovery of this southern city.
The dispute has led to the cancellation of three flights that were due to land Monday in Basra, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, and adds to increasing tensions between local Shiite leaders and British forces based in the region.
Transport Minister Salam al-Maliki, a top Shiite lawmaker, told reporters that the airport’s closure has been ordered due to “complex” problems with British forces providing security at Basra airport.
Al-Maliki claimed British security measures were delaying airport employees being able to enter the airport by up to four hours.
“They claim they are security measures but there is a deliberate effort to delay the operation of the airport and create a problem for the ministry,” al-Maliki said. He did not say when he ordered the airport closed, but strike action by employees began Sunday, according to the British military.
Flights on Monday by Royal Jordanian Airlines, East West Marine Aviation and Iraqi Airways were canceled as a result of al-Maliki’s call, said British military spokesman Maj. Peter Cripps.
“These actions have a knock-on effect with the cancellations of at least two and probably three flights which will in turn lose business for Basra for the people he is intending to represent,” Cripps told The Associated Press.
Cripps said the airport was open Monday and Ministry of Border Enforcement guards and customs employees were at work. Iraqi Airways employees were the only staff apparently on strike, he said.
Cripps disputed al-Maliki’s claims, saying Iraqi forces are responsible for manning the main checkpoint entering the airport, which is under overall British control. Delays of up to one hour do take place at the checkpoint for employees who want to drive through in their own cars, which must be checked.
But a shuttle bus service exists designed to take employees from the checkpoint directly into the airport complex, which speeds of access for workers, Cripps added. A Royal Jordanian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to make press statements, said the airline had been informed that the airport will remain closed until further notice.
“We have no information whatsoever when it’ll reopen, but we will keep communicating with airport authorities there to see when our flights could resume,” she said.
Tensions have been high in Basra between local leaders and the British military, which has more than 8,000 forces based in the southern city. Last month, British forces detained several police officers linked to militia-related killings and kidnappings. The arrests sparked large protests and calls by the local governor to sever ties with Britain if the police officers aren’t released.