By Army Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 22, 2008 - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waved to cheering crowds July 20 as he stepped off the first plane landing at Najaf International Airport. The celebration marked the opening of a new airport that will facilitate travel, boost business opportunities and increase tourism.
"The Najaf airport is a starting point for competition among provinces and local governments to make extraordinary progress toward reconstruction. ... We were determined to face the terrorism that was about to destroy Iraq," Maliki said. "The strong will of the federal government has fought and defeated it in all of its forms."
Iraqi soldiers and police officers maintained control over the mass of media and photographers who came to record the historic event. Children laughed and waved Iraqi flags. Men and women posed for pictures, hugging one another, kissing cheek-to-cheek with greetings. Musicians played enchanting melodies, and singers sang with spirit.
Najaf is one of the holiest cities for Shiia Muslims. The city is renowned as the site of the tomb of Imam Ali Talib, whom Shiias consider the prophet Muhammad's heir. The site is believed to be the third-most-popular destination for Islamic pilgrimages, after the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina.
The airport will employ hundreds of people, from security guards to customer service representatives. The airport also will create new opportunities in the economy for hotels and restaurants, travel agencies, banks, currency exchange, and even agricultural processing to feed Najaf's new visitors. Officials hope the airport will attract businesses and investors.
"The benefits of this facility will ripple throughout the local, provincial, regional and national economy," said Angus Simmons, of Reston, Va., team leader for the Najaf Provincial Reconstruction . The PRT helped to facilitate construction contracts and linked airport officials with a U.S. transportation advisor who specializes in airport management.
The new airport is part of a multi-billion dollar project led by the investment firm Al-Aqeelah, based in Kuwait. The firm plans to build thousands of new homes and hotels in the city. A total of $80 million has been committed to the airport's construction, $50 million of it already invested in the project.
"I would say the Najaf people and the leadership here at the provincial level have a very national viewpoint on what this airport does for Iraq," said Army Col. Jefforey Smith, deputy commanding general for support for Multinational Division Center and the 10th Mountain Division.
"About the only other way you could have gotten into this part of the country previously was by vehicle. There's no train system that comes through here," Smith said. "So this airport is going to be huge, not only for Najaf, but ... it will affect the other major cities in the province of Karbala [and others] north and west of here."
The airport will help not only the province of Najaf to prosper, but also will benefit the neighboring provinces of Karbala, Babil and Qadasiyah. Before now, the closest airport was in Baghdad, hundreds of miles north of these areas.
"I think it's a positive time — it's a good time — to open this airport," Smith said.
(Army Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret serves in the Multinational Division center Public Affairs Office.)