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Sat 3 Jan 2009 09:29 AM

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First Euro passenger plane lands in Iraq for 18 years

Nordic Leisure airliner brings in 150 people, resuming air links between Iraq, Europe.

The first passenger flight from Europe in 18 years landed at Baghdad airport on Friday, when a Swedish charter aircraft touched down.

The Nordic Leisure airliner brought in 150 people, most of them Iraqis, resuming air links between Iraq and Europe for the first time since the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

More international flights are expected in the next two days, including one from Hong Kong, Iraqi Transport Minister Amer Abduljabbar Ismail told reporters at the airport.

The pilot waved the Swedish flag as he was bringing the MD-83 (McDonnell Douglas) plane to halt on the tarmac of Baghdad's international airport.

"I am very pleased and happy because now there are direct flights... it will it will save us time. Before we had to travel to either Syria or Jordan" to catch flights for Europe, said an Iraqi, Mohammed Amir.

Also among the passengers was Rania, 18, who was eight when she left her native Iraq. "What more can I tell you? I am home," she said.

On Tuesday, Air France-KLM and Iraq's transport ministry signed a preliminary accord which will see Iraqi Airways taking off for European destinations and Baghdad airport being renovated.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, state-owned Iraqi Airways was hit hard by UN sanctions imposed against Iraq and its service declined rapidly.

After the US-led invasion in 2003, the airline slowly resumed flights and today the national carrier flies to the regional capitals and major cities of Amman, Beirut, Tehran, Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus and Dubai.

Ismail hopes that pilgrims from Bahrain will be soon able to fly to the holy Iraqi city of Najaf in the south.

"Also soon a direct flight will commence between Baghdad and Mashhad," he said, referring to the northeastern Iranian city where Reza, the Shiite eighth Imam, is buried.

Three recently purchased new Boeing 737-300s will be used on some of these recently added routes, the minister said.

The Iraqi government in May 2008 ordered 30 Boeing 737 commercial airplanes in a deal worth up to $2.2 billion.

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