BAGHDAD — Iraq officially began to govern its skies this week, but it has enough trained air traffic controllers only to manage the highest heights above the country.
That leaves the U.S. still in control of everything below 24,000 feet, meaning that American air-traffic controllers handle everything from the runway to 23,999 feet.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say that they're hopeful that Iraq will say goodbye to all its American air traffic advisers by 2011 — the year designated in the security agreement for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq — as Iraq's airline industry grows for the first time in decades:
- On Friday, a Swedish air carrier landed a European commercial plane at the Baghdad International Airport for the first time in 17 years.
- Iraqi Airways in May announced plans to buy 30 commercial airplanes from Boeing.
- Officials in Najaf are talking about forming a regional airline in coordination with a local government that manages the city's airport.
The Baghdad airport is handling more than 35 flights a day, up from about 17 a year ago. Those flights travel throughout the Middle East, with Jordanian, Syrian and Turkish carriers among the companies that are working out of Baghdad.
"There are people all over the world looking and dreaming to come (to Iraq) one day," said Sabeeh al Shebany, Iraq's general director of civil aviation, whom Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki appointed to the post in 2006.
Iraqi airports and airlines had few resources to build on after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The war itself didn't deplete Iraq's aviation assets; 20 years of fighting and economic sanctions had crippled the industry.
United Nations sanctions after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait prohibited international flights out of Iraq and diminished domestic travel by barring air traffic in the country's Kurdish northern provinces. Iraqi Airways virtually shut down, hiding its planes in Jordan.
Capable air-traffic controllers and pilots sought work abroad. Others were grounded, including Shebany. He's a former air force captain and Iraqi Airways pilot.
So when the U.S. and Iraq began to resuscitate the industry in 2004, "We started from scratch," Shebany said.
The air traffic controllers who remained tended to have dated knowledge and little familiarity with new technology, said a U.S. Embassy official, who spoke only on the condition that he not be identified because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists.
That early effort to train Iraqi air-traffic controllers faltered when security concerns escalated. It was revived in 2005, and has continued ever since with Iraqis becoming certified for a variety of air traffic assignments.
Iraq has 77 controllers with some form of accreditation or training. It plans to hire about 80 more in the next year.
It takes about a year to 18 months for an air traffic controller to earn basic accreditation, Shebany said, meaning that Iraq could fill the required 160 positions it needs by 2011 if the next batch of hires succeeds.
In recent months, Iraqi controllers have managed the airspace above 29,000 feet. That area has few flights, consisting generally of international planes passing over the country.
Iraq took control of its airspace above 24,000 feet this week, giving it considerably more flights to manage.
It will continue to take over its airspace as it brings on more qualified controllers.
"We'll give it up as fast as they can take it," the U.S. official said.
Iraq also is taking the lead on overseeing daytime flights at its airports in Baghdad and Basra. The U.S. military brings in flights from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. at those sites.
(Ashton reports for The Modesto Bee.)
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