Iraq building new Karbala airport to handle pilgrims

Iraqi officials, spiritual leader lay cornerstone of new airport

KARBALA - Iraqi officials laid the cornerstone of a new airport near Karbala Monday, mostly to handle the millions of pilgrims who flock to the holy Shiite city each year.
The Central Euphrates Airport will be located some 35 kilometres (20 miles) south of Karbala, Ahmed Tobal, an engineer with the Khayrat al-Sibtein company supervising the project, said.
"The first phase will include the construction of a runway, a passenger terminal, a car park and a maintenance facility," he said at Monday's ceremony.
"The airport will receive its inaugural flight in 18 months."
British company Copperchase, whose managing director Anthony Myers also attended the ceremony, will carry out the $500-million (467-million-euro) project, Tobal said.
Khayrat al-Sibtein belongs to the Imam Hussein shrine, the Karbala mausoleum of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson which is one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.
"This airport will contribute to reviving tourism in the central Euphrates region," said Sheikh Abdel Mahdi al-Karbalai, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most revered cleric.
He said that at least five Iraqi provinces would benefit from the new airport, which will be around half way between Karbala and the other holy Shiite city of Najaf.
"Karbala receives millions of pilgrims and building the airport is a necessity," Karbala Governor Aqeel al-Turaihi said during the ceremony.
He said that in recent years around 2.5 million foreigners visited Karbala each year for Arbaeen, an annual commemoration at the Imam Hussein shrine which has become one of the world's largest pilgrimages.
"Establishing it does not only serve the people of Karbala and neighbouring provinces but all the Muslims of the world who come during the religious holidays," Turaihi said.