Mosul airport renovations

MOSUL, Iraq – A modern, glass-topped tower glistens through dust blowing across this dilapidated Saddam Hussein-era airfield, where commercial planes haven’t landed for nearly 15 years.

This December, U.S. and Iraqi authorities plan to use the new air traffic control tower to guide jets shuttling locals to Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim pilgrimage – jump-starting what they hope will be regular commercial air service to Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city.

The $13.2 million renovation of Mosul’s airport – including the new tower and an enlarged, refurbished passenger terminal – was directed by the Ninevah provincial council and funded by the U.S. State Department.

Not only would the airport allow Muslims to make the hajj directly from Mosul – avoiding the often treacherous roads en route to other airports in Baghdad or Irbil – but it could also be a boon to the local economy. Mosul lies 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, halfway between Iraq’s seat of power and prosperous, business ventures in Kurdish territory to the north.

“You’ll have a major hub for transportation and everything that brings – tourism and commerce,” said Navy Cmdr. Jay Sebastyn, deputy leader of the U.S. State Department’s provincial reconstruction team in Mosul.

With about 2.7 million residents, Ninevah is Iraq’s second-largest province in area behind Anbar, and second only to Baghdad in population. Ninevah’s parched, rolling hills – crisscrossed by the Tigris River – are bounded by Syria to the west, and stretch up to snowcapped mountains in Kurdish territory to the north and east.

It is also the country’s most diverse, with dozens of ethnic and religious minorities including the ancient Yazidi sect. Homeland of the biblical prophet Jonah, Ninevah contains many archaeological ruins and some of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world – which officials hope could eventually lure thousands of foreign tourists each year.

The hajj flights have been a priority for Mosul authorities since last year, when 750 pilgrims from the area were stranded at the nearest international airport in Irbil, part of the autonomous Kurdish region just north of Mosul, and missed the annual journey altogether.

Hajj flights are chartered and paid for by the government, and faithful win participation through a lottery. This year’s hajj is expected to take place in late December, according to the Muslim lunar calendar.

Last year, the Mosul pilgrims had government permits to leave Iraq for the hajj, and it remains unclear why they were blocked from boarding planes.