ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – After nearly six months of the Iraqi government’s ban on airports in the Kurdistan Region, the first international flight took off from Erbil International Airport to Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
About 150 Kurdish pilgrims on board of an Iraqi Airways plane left Erbil International Airport to Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah, said Nabaz Ismail, the Director of Media and Relations at the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.
Ismail added that 4,000 people from the Kurdistan Region had registered to visit Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah.
In February, Baghdad agreed to lift the international flight ban for Muslim pilgrims traveling to the holy city of Mecca to perform the non-mandatory, lesser pilgrimage made by Muslims. Unlike the Hajj, Umrah can be performed at any time of the year.
Sulaimani International Airport had already conducted its first international flight, but only for religious pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia for Umrah, the airport’s press office stated.
Iraq’s federal government imposed the international flight ban on Sep. 29 as retaliation for the Kurdistan Region’s Sep. 25 independence referendum, which saw 93 percent of the population vote for secession from Iraq.
Since then, Baghdad has extended the ban twice, most recently on Feb. 26, prolonging the restriction on international travel until May 31.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday said the flight embargo on Kurdistan’s airports “might” be lifted before Newroz, the Kurdish new year.
Kurdish officials have repeatedly stated that the ban has severely damaged the Region’s economy, forcing many companies to close offices and lay off staff.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany