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U.S. to End 16-Year Ban on Commercial Flights to Iraq

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is lifting a 16-year-old ban on commercial flights by U.S. carriers to two airports in Kurdish northern Iraq, citing increased stability in the region.

Civilian flights to that nation, which had been the scene of a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone and then a war to depose President Saddam Hussein, were halted in 1996 for safety reasons, the FAA said in a notice to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow.

The agency will now allow flights into Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Flights by commercial operators from other nations have used airports there without incident for years, the FAA said in the notice.

“The FAA has determined that flights by U.S. operators may now be conducted safely to these two airports under certain conditions,” it said.

U.S. civilian flights have been allowed to operate over Iraq at altitudes above 20,000 feet (6,096 meters), and the FAA has granted permission for some commercial flights into that country under contract by the military or other agencies.

The Transportation Security Administration, which oversees security issues, also must approve U.S. carrier operations in Iraq, according to the FAA notice.

William Flynn, president and chief executive officer of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc., which operates two cargo airlines, said in an interview that Iraq’s economy is showing signs of recovery and needs international trade to expand.

Cargo Opportunities

“I think that will create opportunities for U.S. cargo carriers,” Flynn said.

The Purchase, New York-based company operates Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo.

Oil exploration in Kurdistan, and the region’s relative safety, have sparked business travel and investment.

Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. are among energy companies that have signed exploration deals in the Kurdish region.

Erbil, the regional capital, opened a new international airport in 2010 that’s added service from carriers including Emirates and Qatar Airways Ltd.

Hotels Planned

Blackstone Group LP’s Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International Inc., Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. and Best Western International Inc. all have announced plans to build or manage hotels in Erbil.

While U.S. political and commercial relations with the Kurdistan regional government are stable, tensions with the central government of Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been strained by reports that Iraq is allowing Iran to ship weapons through Iraqi airspace to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The FAA said it is evaluating other airports in Iraq to determine if additional lifting of the restrictions might be warranted.

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