BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Baghdad International Airport, Iraq's only reliable link to the outside world, was closed Friday in an embarrassing pay dispute between the government and a British security company.
The Interior Ministry sent a force to reopen the facility, but withdrew the men after they confronted U.S. soldiers at a key checkpoint along the airport road.
"We ordered the forces to pull back after American forces were deployed at the first checkpoint on the road. We did not want to create a confrontation," acting Transportation Minister Esmat Amer told The Associated Press.
Brig. Gen. John Basilica Jr., commander of the 256th Brigade Combat Team of the Louisiana National Guard, said security remained "intact" at the airport. His unit, some of which has already returned to the United States, had been in charge of security along the militant-plagued airport road.
Otherwise, the U.S. military, in an apparent attempt to play down the problem, said it had no information about the pay dispute or Interior Ministry force movements.
The airport is located about 10 miles west of Baghdad, linked to the city by a four-lane highway that is notorious for insurgent attacks and described by the State Department as one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
Officials say about 15 civilian flights use the airport daily for both domestic and international travel. The flights are operated by Iraqi Airways, Royal Jordanian Airlines and three companies operating out of the United Arab Emirates — Jobotier, Ishtar and Tigris airlines.
There is service between Baghdad and Basra, Sulaimaniya and Irbil in Iraq as well as Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. It also is used for cargo flights.
Built by the French, the facility was called Saddam International Airport before the Iraqi leader's fall. During the March 2003 invasion, U.S. troops seized the airport quickly as they approached Baghdad, then used it as a staging ground for their final sweep into the capital.
Several U.S. bases remain around the airport, including Camp Victory, where Saddam is believed to be imprisoned awaiting trial on charges of crimes against humanity.
Amer had said earlier that Iraqi troops had been sent to reopen the facility because its closure was illegal.
"This issue is related to Iraq's sovereignty, and nobody is authorized to close the airport," Amer told the AP.
He said the Cabinet approved the dispatch of Interior Ministry troops to take over from the London-based Global Strategies Group, which had provided security since last year.
Amer said the government had been trying since January to renegotiate a $4.5 million monthly contract that Global had signed with the defunct U.S. Coalition Provision Authority. The CPA gave sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in 2004.
This was believed to be the first serious dispute involving a Western contractor since the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam. The United States has managed to keep its forces in Iraq — now at about 140,000 — to a minimum by hiring contractors for vast amounts of work the military normally would do. Congress has routinely complained that oversight is lax and the U.S. government is routinely overcharged.
Global said its workers would continue securing the facility but had suspended other operations because the Transportation Ministry, which owns the airport, was six months behind in payments. All flights in and out of Baghdad were suspended, it said.
"We're in continuing dialogue and we're hoping it'll be resolved as soon as possible," company spokesman Giles Morgan said. He declined to talk about specifics of the dispute.
Amer confirmed Global had not been paid since contract talks resumed around Jan. 1.
In June, Global suspended airport operations for 48 hours for the same reason.
The company also manages security at the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad — home to Iraqi government offices, parliament, and the U.S. Embassy. It has about 1,100 employees — mainly former Nepalese and Fijian soldiers. About 500 Global workers staff the airport.
In the northern city of Tal Afar, a key insurgent staging ground near the Syrian border, the Iraqi army said it arrested 200 suspected militants — three-fourths of them foreign fighters.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi military operation encircled the city and reported heavy fighting with insurgent forces for several days. Tal Afar is about 260 miles north of Baghdad and 35 miles from Syria.
Most of the estimated 200,000 residents have fled this predominantly Turkmen city, where 70 percent of that ethnic group is Sunni Muslim — the sect that dominates the Iraqi insurgency. The U.S. military said it killed seven insurgents in the past two days amid growing indications the joint force was preparing to intensify the operation.
Meanwhile, former U.S. hostage Roy Hallums, who was rescued Wednesday from an isolated farmhouse near Baghdad, left Friday for the United States, the military said.
Hallums, 57, formerly of Newport Beach, Calif., flew out of a U.S. Air Force base at Balad aboard a C-17 transport, a statement said. He was working for the Saudi Arabian Trading and Construction Co., supplying food to the Iraqi army, when he was kidnapped Nov. 1.