The lifting of UN sanctions against Iraq in 2003 failed to achieve the hoped-for effect of reviving the country's moribund flag carrier
Kifah Hasan Jabbar must have one of the most unenviable jobs among airline leaders in the Arab world. As chairman and director general since March 2006, he has been entrusted to lead Iraqi Airways into a new future in the middle of a country occupied by foreign forces and ravaged by sectarian strife.
He muses ruefully that his first name Kifah means struggle in Arabic, which is appropriate for the task facing him and his airline. A Boeing 707 pilot for Iraqi Airways between 1978 and 1981, Jabbar then spent 15 years in Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison for not joining Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
After years of inactivity following the first Gulf War, when the airline was not allowed to own aircraft, nor to fly, it was thought the lifting of United Nations sanctions in 2003 would speed up the reactivation of Iraqi Airways. But, says Jabbar: "We still don't own any aircraft, we are only leasing. We were supposed to be free, but we are encountering many difficulties."
Jabbar cites the 14-year-old unresolved court battle with Kuwait Airways over the loss of that airline's fleet during the 1990 Iraq invasion as one of the seemingly intractable problems confronting Iraqi Airways. The airline is facing a compensation claim of more than $600 million for 10 aircraft annexed, four of which were destroyed during allied air strikes on Mosul.
"Nobody is knocking on our door. We fight on alone" Kifah Hasan Jabber, chairman and director general, Iraqi Airways
He also says the restriction of flying only between sunrise and sunset, and the lack of foreign passengers because of the continuing instability and security concerns in some areas within Iraq, as issues holding back his carrier's development. "Foreigners do not come [to Iraq], we are only working to fly Iraqi nationals to countries like Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon
, Syria and Turkey," says Jabbar.
In the past two years, the airline has resumed a small domestic network linking Baghdad with Basra, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, and regional flights primarily serving Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Dubai, Istanbul and Tehran. These are flown with aircraft registered in Sierra Leone and Djibouti, but painted in Iraqi Airways colours. The fleet includes one 767-200, two 727-200s and five 737-200s.
Jabbar says a formal request for proposal has been issued to replace the ageing 737-200s by an equal number of newer models and he expects to make a selection in the next few months. Jabbar reveals that the airline would prefer to stay with Boeing, adding that the US manufacturer has offered "encouraging help with finance".
Relations appear to be less cordial with Airbus. Iraqi Airways had a deal before 1990 to acquire five new A310-300s, but this is now dead and the airline has no intention of taking delivery. Jabbar says that Iraqi Airways paid almost $11 million in deposits and is still fighting to have this returned.
First, however, Iraqi Airways has to regain its air operator's certificate (AOC). It hopes to initially place one each of the existing 727s and 737s on the register, but finds it hard. "The 727-200 and 737-200 should be Iraqi by now," Jabbar says, "because of the abnormal situation, and no AOC, we cannot register any aircraft."
Of the fleet dispersed to Jordan and Tunis during the first Gulf conflict, at least three stored aircraft could be made airworthy. "We have five aircraft in Jordan. At least two could be put back into service," he says. "We also have five aircraft in Tunisia, of which the most useful is the Presidential 747SP." He believes that restoring these aircraft would be the quickest road to regaining the carrier's AOC.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Airways is making huge efforts to reconnect with the international community. "We are working hard to improve the social and political environment and re-establish and develop relations with our neighbours," he says, but laments the fact that no visas are being issued to Iraqis.
"We have to find a market before we can get aircraft," says Jabbar. One such could be the reactivation of the London route, most likely via Athens. But the airline has a long road ahead. "Nobody is knocking on our door," he regrets. "We fight on alone."