First European flight in 20 years lands in Baghdad

A plane operated by France’s Aigle Azur landed in Baghdad on Sunday, becoming the first flight from a European airline to arrive in the city since a 1990 international embargo on Iraq.

The Airbus A319 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 ofKuwait 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, will from January 2011 offer two flights a week from Charles de Gaulle, Europe’s second busiest air hub after London Heathrow.

The airline is getting the jump on other European carriers considering flying the route which is potentially lucrative thanks to increasing Western business with the war-ravaged country.

Meziane Idjerouidene, the airline’s vice president who was on Sunday’s flight, said the route would probably start by losing money but pick up in the medium term.

“At first it will be difficult and we will lose money. But we are a private airline and we launched this route because we believe in it. I think it will become feasible in the medium term,” he said.

“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.

The airline will offer the route at 1,265 euros (1,750 dollars) in economy class and 2,416 euros in business class.

Baghdad was previously reachable from Europe via stopovers in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon or the Gulf.

Germany’s Lufthansa also had hoped to launch a direct flight to Baghdad, but said it had deferred due to insufficient demand.

Lufthansa and fellow German carrier Air Berlin already fly to the city of Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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.

In the 1970s France was one of Iraq’s main suppliers of civilian and military equipment, second only to the Soviet Union, with later president Jacques Chirac calling Saddam a personal friend.

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.