Thursday, January 29, 2009

Direct flights to Iraq on way

BAHRAIN is on the verge of signing an air transportation agreement with Iraq that will lead to the introduction of direct flights between the two, it was confirmed yesterday. A high-level delegation of Iraqi Civil Aviation officials will travel to Manama in March to finalise the deal, said Iraqi Embassy deputy head of mission Ahmed Agha.

He revealed the agreement was originally due to be signed yesterday, but had to be postponed because of unexpected work commitments of those involved.

Mr Agha said the deal would help thousands of pilgrims who make annual trips to Najaf and Karbala from Bahrain.

"It will cut the costs for passengers as now they have to go via Dubai and other places," he told the GDN.

"From Bahrain it only takes one and a half hours (by air) to reach Baghdad but now it takes two days.

"The demand is huge now and this agreement will encourage more people to come to Iraq."

Mr Agha, who has been personally working on the transport agreement for around two years, said it was vital the deal was concluded quickly.

"We are waiting for Iraqi Civil Aviation officials to come here for the signing," he said.

"Any delay is a loss of money for Bahrain and Iraq.

"Traders and business delegations from Iraq use Oman, Jordan and Dubai as their transit point. Why not make Bahrain that focal point for travellers?"

Mr Agha said airlines such as Gulf Air and Bahrain Air were keen to introduce Iraq flights.

He also played down security fears, saying that in reality the level of violence was vastly lower than people assumed.

"For the last five years we have had Bahrainis coming and going from Iraq and nothing has happened," he said.

The Iraqi Embassy last year granted more than 4,000 visas for Bahraini pilgrims to visit Najaf and Karbala.

The GDN revealed last July that high-level talks were continuing between Bahrain and Iraq to finalise the air transport agreement.

Mr Agha confirmed discussions are also still ongoing about reopening a ferry service between both countries as part of efforts to boost trade and tourism links with the Gulf.