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NAJAF, Iraq — It may be hard for Westerners to believe, but one industry that’s booming, despite the global recession, is Iraqi tourism.

Provinces like Najaf and Karbala, off-limits to outsiders during Saddam Hussein’s long reign, are seeing massive influxes of visitors, mostly Shiite pilgrims from places like Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and even Canada.

According to the U.S. State Department, the number of visitors to Najaf, which along with neighboring Karbala is considered one of the holiest places in Shiite Islam, could range from 7 million to 10 million annually.

At Najaf International Airport, visitors in Western clothes or traditional Middle Eastern dress step off jets and onto air-conditioned buses for the short ride to the airport’s gleaming new terminal. Inside, people queue up to check baggage, pass immigration, change money or buy snacks and magazines while bus and taxi drivers mill about in the car park waiting to take visitors to their hotels.

Seven to 10 flights arrive each day at the airport, which opened last July, according to Kirk Benson, a former U.S. Air Force pilot. As a member of the U.S. State Department’s Najaf Provincial Reconstruction Team, Benson advises Iraqis running the $100 million facility.

The 59-year-old who flew refugees to safety in the Philippines when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and ran an airport in Tucson, Ariz., after he retired from the Air Force, said 14,730 passengers arrived at Najaf International Airport in May.

That number is set to leap next month when Iraq’s central government is expected to approve instrument landings at Najaf. The move will allow flights to land at night and in poor visibility — a constant problem in a place where dust storms often blot out the sun, grounding U.S. military helicopters.

“They expect, in the next few months, to see 1,500 to 3,000 people a day through the airport, and that will grow,” Benson said.

Iraqi tourists and business people are among the people coming in and out.

Iraq has international airports in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Irbil, but Najaf is the only one built since the U.S. invasion in 2003, said Benson.

The year-old airport was built on an old Iraqi air force emergency landing strip that shares a fence line with Forward Operating Base Endeavor, occupied by soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 172nd Infantry Brigade.

The terminal, still under construction, is already processing visitors through customs and immigration and handling baggage. It is scheduled to be fully operational, with duty-free shops and restaurants, next month. Nearby, work has started on a VIP terminal and air freight facility, he said.

On any reasonably clear day, aircraft from carriers such as Iraqi Airways, Cham Wings (Syria), Wings of Lebanon, Pakistan International Airlines and regional carriers like Jupiter and Skylink can be seen taking off and landing at Najaf.

Staff at the airport are a mixture of Iraqis and experts from overseas like ramp manager Phiradech Nasai, who worked at Suvarnabhumi Airport in his native Thailand before coming to Iraq.

“There is not bad situations here in Najaf,” he said.

Iraqi ticket agent Ahmed Jakel, who taught himself to speak English watching American movies, said he started work at the airport last year along with three sisters.

“I also have a tourism company in the city,” he said. “We bring groups and find hotels for them and offer transport. They come for a week to 10 days and we bring them back to the airport to fly out.”

Visitors from Iran spend $250 to $300 a week, he said, adding that he expects more business once the airport starts night operations.

“This airport will take business from Baghdad (International) Airport because it is a lot safer here,” he said. “People who visit Babylon and Karbala will come to this airport.”

The golden-dome of the Imam Ali Mosque, visible from many parts of the city, is a must-see for the Shiite tourists. The shrine, in the center of Najaf, is considered one of the landmarks of Islamic culture with its silver-covered tomb, ceramic ornamented walls and resplendent golden dome.

Nearby, the Wadi as-Salam (Wadi of Peace) is said to be the largest cemetery in the world. U.S. soldiers, who sometimes patrol a highway built through the cemetery by Saddam, are often amazed at the vastness of the graveyard, which has countless tombs decorated with colorful images of the departed.

In 2004, uprisings by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia sparked fierce fighting in the Wadi al-Salam.

The cemetery contains the tombs of several Muslim prophets, including Ali. Many of the devout from other lands aspire to be buried here and to be raised from the dead with Ali on Judgment Day. An adage says that being laid to rest next to Ali for one day is better than 700 years worth of prayers.

There is a steady stream of bodies shipped through the airport en-route to the cemetery and there’s a thriving local funeral industry, Benson said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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