By Staff Sgt. Michel SauretJuly 22, 2008
BAGHDAD - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stepped off the first plane landing in Najaf International Airport and waved to cheering crowds July 20.
The celebration marked the opening of a new airport, which will facilitate travel, boost business opportunities and increase tourism to the third-most-popular destination for Islamic pilgrimages.
"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. The strong will of the federal government has fought and defeated it in all of its forms," Maliki said when he addressed the crowd.
Members of the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police maintained control over the mass of media and photographers who came to record the historic event.
Young 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.
The capital of Najaf is considered one of the holiest cities for Shia Islam. The city is renowned as the site of the tomb of Imam Ali Talib, whom Shia 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.
Additionally, the airport will employ hundreds of people from security guards to customer service representatives. The airport will also create new opportunities in the economy for hotels and restaurants, travel agencies, banks, currency exchange, even agricultural processing to feed Najaf's new visitors. Moreover, the presence of this 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 Provincial Reconstruction Team Najaf.
The Najaf PRT helped facilitate construction contracts as well as linked the airport with a U.S. transportation adviser who specializes in airport management.
The new airport is part of a multi-billion dollar project led by 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 Col. Jefforey Smith, deputy commanding general, support for Multi-National 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 prosper, but also the neighboring Karbala, Babil and Qadasiyah. Before now, the closest airport was centralized in Baghdad, hundreds of miles north of these areas. They too will take advantage of economic plans provided by the new travel.
"I think it's a positive time-it's a good time- to open this airport," Smith concluded.