Dispute over pay causes closure of Baghdad airport

U.S. troops take over after private security firm temporarily halts service

September 10, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The private security company that guards Baghdad International Airport shut down the airport yesterday, saying that it had not been paid for the past six months. But the company, Global Strategies Group, announced early today that it had agreed to reopen the airport this morning after a promise by the Iraqi government to pay half the amount owed.

The shutdown yesterday nearly led to a standoff between U.S. military forces and Iraqi soldiers when U.S. forces rushed to the airport to prevent Iraqi troops from taking it over, according to Iraqi officials and the security company.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari announced this morning that at 2 a.m., American and Iraqi forces "commenced an operation to remove all remaining terrorist elements" from the northern insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar, where an American regiment has been fighting for months to suppress an insurgency that controls much of the city. Jaafari's statement offered no details, but said, "The terrorist elements being targeted by this operation are guilty of blatant crimes against its people."

In Washington, President Jalal Talabani said U.S. troops would be needed in Iraq for at least two more years and warned that a premature withdrawal would be a victory for terrorists.

The Baghdad airport is the one dependable way for many reconstruction and security contractors to enter and leave Iraq. Early in the occupation, Westerners could travel by road west to Jordan, north to Turkey and south to Kuwait. But for more than a year those roads have been far too dangerous, with insurgents in restive Sunni Arab towns like Mahmoudiya, Mosul and Ramadi posing a deadly threat.

After Global Strategies closed the airport at dawn yesterday, infuriated Iraqi ministry officials dispatched their own troops to secure the airport. But the Iraqis turned back to avoid a confrontation with U.S. soldiers who had already hurried to the airport from their nearby base, according to Iraqi officials and Global Strategies.

Global Strategies has offices in London; Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates; and Washington.

Giles Morgan, a spokesman for Global Strategies, said the company was keeping employees on the job at any places critical to the overall security and integrity of the airport. The U.S. military sent troops to guard the airport, he said, specifically because they had been informed that Iraqi forces were on their way to take control.

"The Ministry of Transportation said they were deploying Interior Ministry personnel to secure the perimeter, and it was on that basis that the U.S. military deployed the quick-reaction forces they have standing by at the airport," he said.

The acting Iraqi transportation minister, Esmat Amer, said the Iraqi government had "ordered the forces to pull back after American forces were deployed at the first checkpoint on the road," according to the Associated Press. "We did not want to create a confrontation."

An American military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, said he could not confirm that information. He called the American deployment at the airport "precautionary" and said he did not know how long it would last. "We have troops there in case Global walks off the job," he said.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Transportation Ministry, Ahmed Abdul Wahab, said that by yesterday afternoon the airport had reopened. But Morgan of Global Strategies said that civilian passenger flights were not operating yesterday.

Royal Jordanian Airlines, which operates two daily flights into Baghdad from Amman, Jordan, said there were no flights yesterday. "Apparently the airport is still closed; as a result there are no flights in or out," said Bill Connors, an airline spokesman.

Global Strategies has almost 600 employees - Iraqis, Fijians, Nepalese and Westerners - who guard the airport. Although Global has been paying full salaries, the Iraqi government has failed to pay the security company for work since March, Morgan said.

The company shut down the airport for 48 hours in June over the nonpayment, he said, but went back on the job after assurances of a resolution.

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