Security contractors at Baghdad airport went on strike on Friday as part of a contract dispute between their British employer and the Iraqi government, shutting down most of the country's civil aviation.
Staff working for British-based Global Risk Strategies walked off the job at 5 p.m. (1300 GMT) and the company said operations to secure the airport would be suspended indefinitely.
"We have suspended our operations at the airport," said Giles Morgan, a spokesman for Global in London. "We'll resume work to ensure the airport's security as soon as we've reached a satisfactory agreement with Iraq's Ministry of Transport."
The U.S. military said plans were in place for soldiers to step in and take over the contractor's guard duties, ensuring that the airport can continue to be used for military operations. But all civilian use will be blocked.
Sources with Global in Baghdad said the dispute centered on the Iraqi government's failure to pay the company for its contract, a deal worth several million dollars. Iraqi officials said the issue was being dealt with but did not elaborate.
Global employs some 500 people at the airport, many of them Nepalese former soldiers with British Gurkha units. The company took over the contract to protect the airport in June 2004.
A spokeswoman for the Iraqi Transport Ministry said the issue had been handed over to the prime minister's office, which did not immediately respond to calls. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'afari is visiting the United States.
The British consulate in Iraq said in a statement that Iraq's Ministry of Transport had given it no indication of how it intended to resolve the problem.
With resistance attacks on roads around the city, Baghdad airport is the capital's main link to the outside world.
It is in near constant use by the U.S. and British military as well as commercial operators, with around 50 commercial flights a day. Royal Jordanian and Iraqi Airways have daily flights from Baghdad to Amman and other destinations.
A U.S. military spokesman said the strike would not affect its operations. One side of the airport, a vast complex on the western outskirts of Baghdad, is dedicated to military use, with a separate runway and air traffic control.
Commercial flights in and out of Baghdad have been suspended in the past, either for security reasons or because of bad weather, but it is the first time a contract dispute has threatened to close the airport.
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