Niqash: Can you give us an idea of available air transport routes and those that will open soon?
Abdul-Jabbar: Seven months ago air transport routes were very limited in Iraq. There were flight routes to only Amman, Dubai and Beirut. We then started to expand and opened new routes. We raised the issue with the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] and we started to meet the required conditions in our airports. The level of security was adequate enough to invite international companies, specialized in aviation, to visit Baghdad airport to see the progress. Iranian and Turkish airlines came and the Istanbul-Baghdad route was approved by Turkish Airlines – an airline recognized by the European Aviation Authority. Another route was opened, the Baghdad-Tehran-Mashhad, and then the Baghdad-Greece route. Following that an air transport memorandum of understanding was signed between Baghdad and Athens, and a Baghdad-Sweden route was opened for the first time in 19 years.
These moves encouraged other countries to open channels of communications with the Civil Aviation Authority in Iraq. Now we are negotiating to open new routes between Baghdad and London, Pakistan, Bombay, Bahrain and Qatar.
Niqash: How do you explain the poor services in Iraqi airports including the loss of baggage, transportation difficulties, the lack of discipline in flights schedules, and other problems?
Abdul-Jabbar: We admit that there are mistakes and this is because Iraqi airports stopped operating in the 1990s. They were badly affected by economic sanctions and the no-fly zone. This has impacted on our work and our level of experience.
When we started taking small steps, we were faced with huge security and financial challenges. In general, we are now on the right track and we have concluded agreements with international companies and brought in foreign workers. Airport services will be handled by international companies or together with these companies. At the same time, foreign experts from Britain were contracted to manage Iraqi Airlines. As of early May, passengers will feel the difference in the Iraqi airports.
As for the difficulty faced by people entering the airport, we have given an international company a contract to monitor the airport, provide two additional entrance gates for passengers and, as a result of the rise in the number of flights, we will soon open a third hall. We have also inaugurated the Baghdad Airport Hotel for the first time in 19 years to provide passengers with accommodation when there are delays in flights. Additionally, we have asked airlines to respect flights schedules.
Niqash: Why don’t you buy new planes to meet air transport needs?
Abdul-Jabbar: Iraqi Airways is a self-financing company. Its financial situation does not allow it to purchase a new modern fleet. For that reason, we rent planes and this is a common practice. Many airlines rent planes; our problem is that we can rent enough planes but there are not enough routes. Every time we open a new route, we rent a modern plane. We are now negotiating the rental of two new planes.
Niqash: The management of airports run by private companies is causing problems.
Abdul-Jabbar: There are six airports in Iraq: Sulaimaniya and Erbil airports run by the Kurdish government; Mosul, Baghdad and Basra airports run by the Ministry of Transport through the civil aviation authority; and Najaf airport. In general, there are no problems in the management of the first five airports, but the problem is with the Najaf airport established by Aqiq Kuwaiti Company in an investment contract signed between the company and Najaf province. It seems that the company has poor capacities and thus was late in delivering and equipping the airport. We are now pressing the company to abide by the terms and conditions set by the ICAO to start operating the airport at full capacity. Initially, we allowed the airport to operate during day time only. The company must also provide aerial surveillance and communications. This is currently being done by the Iraqi civil aviation authority because the company lacks the capacity to do so. This is part of its tasks according to the US $50 million contract signed with the province. In return, the contract stipulates that the company will receive the airport’s revenues for five years.
As a ministry, we have given our technical remarks and specified the company’s failures in managing the airport. We submitted a letter to the Prime Minister and we gave the company 45 days to finalize the work that needs to be done in order to allow us to operate the airport day and night. If the company does not respond, we will take necessary legal measures. This is the second and final warning to be sent; we can either terminate the contract and return the airport to the control of Iraqi civil aviation authority in coordination with Najaf province or close the airport.
Niqash: Let us move to road transport. For five years, the ministry has not interfered in internal road transport and there is chaos on the streets. How are you going to manage it?
Abdul-Jabbar: Since 2003 many cars entered Iraq and were used as taxis. Violations, with the poor security conditions, became a common practice. People drive cars without having driving licenses and they do not respect traffic regulations. Now, with the improved security, we decided this year to re-operate transportation lines and organize private transport. We started by specifying passenger loading and unloading areas, destinations and parking stations, taxi and bus prices, and regulated the colours of cars in order to prevent private cars being used for public transport. Taxi cars will be orange and white and they will be obliged to equip their cars with signs on their routes and costs. This step will put an end to the chaos and bring order to the road transport sector.
At the same time we are seeking to reduce transport fares and we submitted a proposal to the council of ministers to reduce petroleum prices to cater for drivers and car owners. Petroleum prices in Iraq are higher than prices in world markets. We hope that the council of ministers will positively respond to our proposal.
Niqash: Public buses are working slowly, taking long routes through congested streets. Why did the ministry start these bus routes?
Abdul-Jabbar: We bought 250 yellow German Mercedes buses to be used for internal and external [between provinces] transport and to provide people with cheaper transport, create competition, and pressure the private sector to reduce its prices.
For example, private sector buses charged 50 thousand Iraqi dinars [approximately US $42.5] for the Baghdad to Mosul route. Our modern air-conditioned buses cost 13 thousand Iraqi dinars [approximately US $11]. After two days of operating our buses, the private sector was obliged to reduce its prices by 20%. This was our purpose. If there are no other options, and we continue to just impose penalties on those charging high prices, we would only create transportation crisis and an unhealthy condition that would not bring about any positive results.
Niqash: What about sea transportation? There are currently two operating ports (Umm Qasr and Khor Al-Zubair) but four non-functioning ports. Yet, instead of rehabilitating these ports, there is talk of a ‘Grand Iraqi Port’.
Abdul-Jabbar: Since the fall of the former regime people have been talking about the Faw port, Basra grand port and Iraq’s grand port. These are only names given to one strategic project that will bring about a qualitative leap for the Iraqi economy. Boredom and despair began to seep into people’s hearts because of the many statements on this major project, the largest economic project ever. The project is not only expected to meet Iraq’s commercial needs, but is the first step towards creating the ‘dry Iraqi canal’. Almighty God granted Iraq a strategic location to connect with Europe through Turkey and Syrian ports. The strategic location of Iraq makes it the shortest transportation route for goods transported between northern and southern parts of the world and vice versa.
We are among those waiting for this dream to come true. We know that such a huge project will face international pressures and regional competition and it will not easily see the light of day. When I became responsible for the ministry, I invested lots of time and effort in this project. I reviewed the studies submitted to the ministry from their technical aspects. The study submitted by the Italians, which was prepared through a grant made by the Italian government to the Iraqi ministry of planning, is the study we have chosen and supported. We hope that the government will allow the implementation of the port project according to the investment law which allows the government to contribute 2.8 billion Euros to the project’s first phase.