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First Baghdad flight for European airline in 20 years

PARIS, Oct 29 – An Airbus operated by France\’s Aigle Azur is on Saturday to make the first scheduled flight by a European airline to Baghdad in 20 years amid hopes of boosting historically close Franco-Iraqi business links.

The Airbus A319 is to take off from Paris-Charles de Gaulle at 11:30 pm (2130 GMT) with foreign trade minister Anne-Marie Idrac and 40 French businessmen aboard, landing at Baghdad International five hours later.

Commercial flights between the two capitals, previously operated by national carrier Air France, were suspended after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

"This is an historic event because this is the first scheduled direct service by a European airline between a Western capital and Baghdad for 20 years," said France\’s ambassador to Iraq, Boris Boillon.

Aigle Azur, owned by the Franco-Algerian Idjerouidene family, will from early 2011 offer two flights a week from Charles de Gaulle, Europe\’s second busiest air hub after London Heathrow.

Return tickets will cost 1,265 euros (1,750 dollars) in economy class and 2,416 euros in business class.

The airline is getting the jump on other European carriers considering flying the route which is potentially lucrative thanks to increasing Western business with the war-ravaged country.

"We decided to postpone the opening of the Munich-Baghdad route, initially set for September 30. Demand was too weak. But we are still determined to open a route to Baghdad," said a spokesman for Germany\’s Lufthansa, which already flies to Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Aigle Azur is negotiating a code-sharing deal that would allow Air France-KLM also to offer flights to the Iraqi capital.

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France had close trade links with the regime of Iraq\’s executed leader Saddam Hussein and was vehemently opposed to the March 2003 US-led invasion.

In the 1970s, France was one of Iraq\’s main suppliers of civilian and military equipment, second only to the Soviet Union, with later president Jacques Chirac calling Saddam a personal friend.

Today, French business accounts for only one percent of foreign investment in Iraq.

France doubled its exports to Iraq in 2009 to 413 million euros (571 million dollars) but that figure remains very low given the estimated 600 billion dollar cost of the country\’s reconstruction.

"It\’s unthinkable for French businesses not to take part in the reconstruction of Iraq," said Idrac, who is to sign trade agreements notably on agriculture and investment protection while in Baghdad.

Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis will also sign a deal to supply Iraq with medicine and to help develop its medical sector.

Eurocopter, a subsidiary of aerospace giant EADS, is to sign a 20-million-euro deal with the Iraqi agriculture ministry to buy seven Squirrel helicopters to use as crop dusters.

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