The first flight from Paris to Baghdad since a UN embargo was imposed in 1990 arrived yesterday to acclaim from President Saddam Hussein's regime, the Iraqi news agency reported.
The chartered Boeing-737 carrying "a major French delegation" of 60 medical staff and athletes left Paris after France ignored a UN request to delay its departure. The organisers insisted it was a humanitarian flight.
Iraq welcomed the flight as another step on the long road to lifting sanctions and urged Arab states to follow suit and restore air links. The aircraft belongs to the French company Euralair.
The aim was to show French solidarity with the Iraqi people, "and to show that the air embargo imposed by the United States has no legal existence", the organisers of the three-day private mission, dubbed "Zephyr" said.
An official Iraqi daily, meanwhile, urged Arab countries to restore air links despite the decade-old embargo. "It is high time for all Arabs and friends of Baghdad to take a courageous stand and resume air links with Iraq," said the newspaper Al-Iraq, under a headline of "Welcome to the arrivals in Baghdad".
Al-Iraq said a resumption of flights in and out of Iraq would "ease the suffering of Iraqis" and would lead to a lifting of the UN sanctions in force since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The flight's organiser, Mr Jihad Feghali, said from the aircraft as it was about to take off that the group wanted to show that the flight ban imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990 did not apply to non-commercial flights.
France, which supports this interpretation, notified the Security Council's Iraqi sanctions committee about the flight late on Thursday without asking for permission. France, Russia and China insist no UN resolution bans non-commercial passenger flights to Iraq.
A US State Department, however, said the flight violated the UN sanctions, adding that Washington would report the matter to the UN Security Council
The flight occurred in "defiance of the UN established procedures" and constituted a "violation of the UN sanctions regime against Iraq," said the official, who asked not to be named.
The official said French authorities did not provide "the usual 48 hours prior notification" for this type of flight.