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Missile fear keeps airlines out of Baghdad

BAGHDAD -- Coalition officials in Iraq boasted to reporters months ago that commercial airlines were lining up to fly into Baghdad International Airport. But the rush to capture that market has ground to a halt in the face of a nightmare scenario envisioned by US officials, airline executives, and insurance companies: a shoulder-fired missile striking a commercial jet in midair.

Leave aside the bombings, mortar attacks, and gunfire that punctuate daily life in Iraq. Officials have become increasingly anxious about a possible airline disaster since Nov. 2, when a missile shot down a 10-ton US Army Chinook helicopter, killing 16 soldiers. The troops were on their way home for their first break in more than seven months.

Amid the helicopter wreckage and bodies at the crash site near Fallujah, about 30 miles west of Baghdad International, or BIAP (BUY-ap) as coalition officials have dubbed it, lay the dream of starting commercial flights any time soon.

"It's only a matter of time before a big airliner is brought down somewhere in the world, and Baghdad is a very good place to start," said James O'Halloran, editor of Jane's Land-Based Air Defense in Waterlooville, England. "I cannot see the point in opening up BIAP until the coalition has really secured the area. Otherwise, you're really asking for trouble," he said by telephone.

Last month, insurgents around Baghdad intensified their efforts to shoot down aircraft flying in and out of the airport. At least 30 attempts have been made since July, according to security officials who requested anonymity. Recently, three attempts were made in just one week, coalition officials said, including one against an airplane owned by the air freight company DHL and one against a Russian charter.

The crash of an American Blackhawk helicopter near Tikrit on Friday, after apparently being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, killed six more soldiers and underscored the threat to aircraft.

No jet has been brought down, security officials say, perhaps because insurgents are poorly trained in missile use or because they are firing rocket-propelled grenades. But the volume of missiles fired greatly improves the chances of a hit.

Baghdad may be the most dangerous destination on earth. But the airport also is considered a potential gold mine in the US plans for Iraq. Almost entirely landlocked, with Baghdad in the center of the country, Iraq badly needs its major airport to fly in investors, developers, and cargo.

"The airport is critical in any number of ways. There are huge opportunities in Baghdad," said Joe Morris, director of operations for CusterBattles, a US-based company hired to manage security for the airport. "This could be a substantial hub in the region."

Indeed, the airport is a monument to Iraq's 1980s oil wealth. Partly modeled after Charles de Gaulle International Airport outside Paris and twice the size of Los Angeles International, it was built to handle millions of passengers a year, in a grandiose vision of Saddam Hussein. Today, the scores of check-in desks stand deserted. The electronic board, which lists flights to Tokyo, Paris, and Frankfurt, is a relic from a previous era; the device last operated in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

United Nations weapons inspectors estimated before the war that Iraq possessed about 5,000 shoulder-fired missiles. Most are Russian-built Strela, or SA-7, missiles -- heat-seeking projectiles that cost $1,000 each on the open market and are small and light enough to be hoarded in large quantities in hidden caches.

"There are literally hundreds of thousands of them in the world. Just about every country produces them now," O'Halloran said. "You can run around with them all day on your shoulder and not get tired. And they're very, very cheap. That is what makes them the favorite of these organizations," he said, refering to terrorist operatives around the world.

Aside from the huge stock of the surface-to-air missiles still missing in Iraq, other groups, including Al Qaeda, are believed to possess quantities of them. Last November, Al Qaeda operatives in Kenya narrowly missed bringing down an Israeli jet filled with tourists.

After the devastating attack on the Chinook -- the deadliest single strike on US forces in the Iraq conflict -- US officials conceded that the military has found only a small fraction of Iraq's missiles, despite an intense hunt since April. "We've recovered hundreds of them ourselves," the top US civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, told CNN. "But there are still thousands of them left."

Most military aircraft are fitted with antimissile equipment, but US officials have not said whether the Chinook had lacked it.

The Nov. 2 attack showed the daunting task in making the airport zone immune to missiles. The sprawling area is surrounded by Baghdad's western suburbs, palm groves, and foliage. Soldiers have spent months chopping down trees along the airport road, in an effort to deny insurgents hiding places. But there are almost-daily attacks on the road, at places that also could hide those firing shoulder-held missiles. "This airport area is really enormous, and the task is enormous in controlling missiles," Morris said.

The intense fear of a missile strike does not affect Iraq only. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, US officials acknowledged that many airports were vulnerable to missiles, perhaps fired from a road passing under a runway -- a feature of several airports, including Kennedy International in New York and Charles de Gaulle International. After intensive lobbying from commercial pilots, Congress recently passed a law requiring US airlines to spend billions of dollars fitting new aircraft with automatic detectors that can fire decoys to deflect a missile. Eventually, older aircraft will be retrofitted.

While key government buildings across Iraq were pummeled in the war, Saddam International Airport -- as Baghdad International was then known -- survived without a scratch. Pentagon war planners calculated that it was too valuable to bomb. The Third Infantry Division soldiers who arrived exhausted from combat in early April slumped into leather armchairs in the VIP lounge and gawked at the opulence.

It is the capital's biggest military base, with a steady stream of military helicopters and cargo planes flying in and out daily, and houses the detention facility for hundreds of top officials from Hussein's regime. The duty-free store, stocked with Cuban cigars and good-quality vodka, among other items, caters almost entirely to soldiers.

Since the summer, Royal Jordanian Airlines has flown coalition officials and foreign journalists from Amman three times a week, with civilians paying a huge premium to cover the rocketing insurance premiums: about $650 for a two-hour flight. DHL flies in Boeing 707 jets daily. Other chartered flights serve contractors and humanitarian aid efforts.

In the meantime, the flight into Baghdad International is not for those with sensitive stomachs. In an attempt to avert missiles, pilots bank sharply over the city, virtually landing on the airplane's wing in what is called the "corkscrew" maneuver. Once on the ground, sniffer dogs comb the baggage. New Iraqi immigration officers, trained by US officials, take digital photographs of every arriving passenger.

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