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After turbulent times Iraqi Airways reaches for the skies

Story highlights

  • Iraqi Airways is expanding its fleet and destinations
  • Expansion stalled in 2010 because of multi-billion dollar lawsuit from Kuwait
  • Being a post-war recovering nation puts country at advantage, says transport consultant
  • Airline has ordered ten Boeing Dreamliner 787s

Even during difficult times, Iraqi Airways is aiming high.

Earlier this year Iraq's national carrier started expanding its route network for the first time in 23 years.

It added flights between Baghdad and London, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, and even Kuwait. In the next few months, the airline is planning on adding connections to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Kuala Lumpur, and destinations throughout China, hoping ultimately to expand its network from 15 to 40 by 2017.

"The main draw right now is for Iraqis visiting family and friends. There are four million Iraqis living outside of Iraq, so that's a big market," says Saad Al Khafaji, a spokesman for the airline.

John Strickland, an independent transport consultant, notes that the country's position as a recovering post-war country actually puts the airline in good stead.

"There's a short-term boost from all the workers going in to get the country back on its feet, including NGOs and construction companies. Now that it's on the mend, there's a lot of potential, and as the oil industry continues to grow, it will continue to generate a lot of interest," he says.

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The carrier first attempted a comeback in 2010, but was thwarted by a $1.2 billion lawsuit by Kuwait, which claimed Iraq owed it for aircraft destroyed during the first Gulf War. Now that the suit has been settled, Iraqi Airways seems eager to again reach for the skies. Al Khafaji says the company has invested $700 million so far on a new fleet, including ten Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

"If you look at the planes Iraqi Airways is ordering, they're really moving towards the next generation aircraft," says Strickland. "Given Iraq's location, it will put them in a position where they'll be able to reach most places in the world on a non-stop basis."

The Iraqi government is also making significant contributions on the ground. The country's vast oil revenues (it is now OPEC's second biggest producer) are helping to renovate libraries, museums and archaeological relics -- such as the 1,500-year-old Arch of Ctesiphon.

"The government's objective is to show Iraq isn't just about bombings. There is actual movement to restore the museums, and bring back some of the tourists," says Denise Natali, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

Iraq's Ministry of Transport is also investing heavily in its airports. Plans are currently underway to add three new terminals to Baghdad Airport, doubling its annual capacity to 15 million passengers.

Similarly ambitious airport projects are in the works throughout the country, backed partly by the premise that a transport hub will spur growth in the surrounding cities.

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"The cities will grow towards the airport," says Layla Kareem, the project manager for yet-to-be-built Middle Euphrates International Airport (MEIA). The airport, which will have a capacity of 60 million passengers annually after the completion of the first stage (projected 2017), will be situated near the holy city of Karbala, a place of pilgrimage for the region's Shiite Muslims.

There is still the issue of ongoing violence in the capital and other parts of the country that the tourism industry has the contend with.

The last few months have been the deadliest in the country for five years. According to the United Nations mission to Iraq, last month witnessed 1,045 violent deaths, and another 712 in April, leaving one to ponder whether the country's investment isn't premature.

"There's this idea that the government isn't functioning due to infighting. The truth is, in spite of the terrible bombings in Baghdad, you have considerable progress in the North and South. Those are areas the violence hasn't really touched," says Natali.

"At the end of the day, it's the airports that bring in the people that are going to make Iraq stronger. As the airports develop, so too do the cities and towns around them."

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