BAGHDAD -- A standoff over a multimillion-dollar security bill owed by the Iraqi government shut down Baghdad International Airport yesterday and severed Iraq's last safe route to the outside world, highlighting disarray in the country's administration and security forces and spurring US troops to step in to maintain security.
With the closing, air travel joined electricity, clean water, and security as essential services in short supply in Iraq 2 1/2 years after the US-led invasion. Many Iraqis and some foreign contractors -- vital to rebuilding Iraq -- blamed the transitional government for the shutdown.
The dispute concerned a payment, now totaling $36 million, owed Global Strategies Group for running the airport's security. The $4.5 million monthly contract was signed by Iraq's previous government and has gone unpaid since January as the current government tries to renegotiate it, Iraqi officials confirmed. Global, which is based in Britain, shut down airport operations for 48 hours in June in a dispute over the same contract.
Yesterday, Global's security contractors maintained their posts around the airport but turned back would-be travelers -- shutting down travel without actually leaving unguarded either the airport road, which was one of Iraq's most-bombed routes until US military greatly intensified its presence there, and the airport, which insurgents have not managed to hit.
''Make a U-turn. There are no flights today," a Global guard at a sandbagged, concrete-walled checkpoint told one traveler, a police officer with luggage in the back of the car and a ticket in hand for a training seminar in neighboring Jordan.
''Why?" the traveler asked, demanding to know when he could fly. ''We don't know," the guard answered. ''We just need you to turn around."
The news caught more than travelers by surprise; top Iraqi Transportation Ministry officials, when called at midmorning for comment on the closing, said they had not known about it.
By late afternoon, US troops had set up their own impromptu checkpoint by parking Humvees across the airport road and stopping each vehicle to check for identification. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan, a US military spokesman, said the Iraqi government had asked the Americans to step in. Acting Transportation Minister Esmat Amer vowed to send Iraqi troops to force the reopening of the airport.
The ministry dispatched its police, only to call them back after they reached the American checkpoint. ''We did not want to create a confrontation," Amer said. Interior Ministry officials also briefly appeared at the checkpoint, guards said.
Government officials said throughout the day that the airport would reopen imminently and normal traffic would resume. By early today, however, it was unclear when that would happen.
The shutdown was more than an inconvenience. Insurgent attacks, banditry, and the numerous armed men of murky affiliation on Iraq's roads make driving out of the country gravely dangerous for Iraqis and almost impossible for foreigners. Disappointed travelers -- including parents with children returning or leaving home after summer breaks and a doctor who needed to send a sick 5-year-old to India for surgery -- besieged travel agents.
''We are suffering from some of the inexperienced ministers," Fadhil Mahdi, a merchant desperate to get goods into the country, said at the home of his travel agent, where he had gone for help. ''They must think of the people who will be affected by their wrong decisions."
The shutdown has the potential to create major headaches for companies doing business in Iraq, said Ron Cruse, president and chief executive of Logenix International LLC, a logistics firm based in Springfield, Va., with contracts in Iraq.
Cruse also said he was concerned about the precedent set for dealings between Iraq ministries and foreign companies at a time when the Iraqis are taking over the management of an increasing number of contracts.
Contractors, particularly security firms, play a major role in Iraq, and their presence eases the demands on both the rebuilding Iraqi security forces and the 140,000 US troops in the country.
In the northeastern city of Tal Afar, meanwhile, US forces kept up the bombardment of a neighborhood that has become a stronghold for insurgents. Airstrikes by US helicopter gunships and jets killed 18 suspected insurgents, the US military said. US and Iraqi forces have massed 5,000 troops at Tal Afar for an expected ground assault on the district. Yesterday, troops laid a 24-hour curfew on the city.
Residents and hospital officials in the western border city of Qaim said jets bombed a suspected safe house of Abu Musab Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq movement. Three foreign fighters and five Iraqis were killed, said a physician.