Issue 2/2003 - Net section

Saddam International Airport/Baghdad International Airport

The airport as a symbol and elementary unit of (neo)-imperial world land development

Krystian Woznicki

When, on April 4 2003, the Saddam International Airport was renamed »Baghdad International Airport«, it was the first big mark made by the allied forces in the course of »Operation Iraqi Freedom«. This »symbolic war«1 produced a symbol that, like the toppling of the monument in Baghdad only a few days later, was meant to stand above all for the »New World Order«2. And thus, not least, for the apparently inevitable triumph of the US empire. There were several reasons why the airport in Baghdad was particularly suitable for this symbolic function.
An airport is already per se a colonial and - if you like - imperial type of space production. In an era when air traffic and aerial warfare are the most advanced »modi operandi« of globalisation, it is the perfect medium and interface of capitalist territorial expansion. When air travel was in its infancy, airports were often built in undeveloped, or even »uncivilised« places. This made them central points in world-wide networks that integrated even undeveloped areas of this globe into the menu of official flight schedules - a dream of world-wide connectivity that was, for a long time, synonymous with Pan American Airways. It was also this circumstance that made the company with the blue globe logo an object of hostility. The airline was forced to accept several terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 1980s, including an attack on the ground in Karachi, a gunfire attack on the first-class cabin area on the open runway in Rome, and a bomb explosion that occurred during take-off in San Francisco.
Even the hijacking of the »Landshut« meant that it was not only the picture of a Lufthansa plane at Mogadishu International Airport that burnt its way deep into the collective memory3, but also a message from the hijackers transmitted by aircraft radio, which provided a sort of caption to this picture and in 1977 was tantamount to a manifesto: »We are fighting against the imperialist organisations of the world.«
All in all, these were terrorist infringements that established the airport as a symbolic zone of conflict. In other words, not as a space in itself, but as a kind of »social space«, as a projection surface for higher conflicts and interests that were mostly of a global nature. This »symbolic turn« had already begun to become apparent in 1966 in the case of Narita Airport. While the farmers from around the intended site, who had not agreed to the airport's construction, began a bitter fight for their land, the students that joined them had a much more abstract agenda. As an advisor to the president of the Narita Airport Authority (NAA) recently recalled in the »Taipei Times«, they saw the sometimes bloody protests against Narita as being, above all, a symbolic fight against the establishment.4 What is more, they interpreted the airport as being a key geo-strategic location, against the background of the second - »American« - phase of the Vietnam war. And when pictures went around the world of a woman armed with pieces of bamboo fighting against the riot police, people again spoke of »Japan's Vietnam«.5
When US units took the airport in Baghdad, it was thus not only the geographical, spatial dimension that was emphasised, although the airport was obviously of great military, strategic significance, having a runway that is over four kilometres long, enough for a Boeing 747, but also for the largest military transport aircraft: in other words, the time needed to bring in soldiers, weapons and goods could be reduced from several days to a few hours, which would be of great benefit not only for the further course of the war but also for a siege of the Iraqi capital. What was stressed, however, was that the airport was now a »gateway to the future of Iraq«6. One could also say, by modifying the popular description many airports give of themselves as a »Gateway to the World«, that Baghdad International Airport was now to act as the »World's Gateway to the Arab Region«‚. So here, the airport is not only the symbolic medium of conquest, but that of reconquest: of recolonialisation.

No Man's Land?
One year before the epoch of decolonialisation was officially concluded (1975), the story of the Nicosia International Airport starts to get interesting. A airport that, as Bruce Sterling also writes in his geo-political pop epos »Zeitgeist«, set on Cyprus in 1999, is situated on the strangest part of the island: in the »wilderness caused by the 25-year ceasefire«. A place with a very special atmosphere, which the Texan author/futurist describes as follows: »The front known as the 'Green Line' ran across the entire island: over hills, valleys, and straight through the divided capital, from one end of Cyprus to the other. A no man's land had grown up around it, abundantly furnished with rusting landmines, fragments of barbed wire, the amateurish trenches and bunkers of the militia. This overgrown limbo was guarded by UN blue helmets, while Turkish and Greek conscripts, brandishing their weapons, held their positions on rickety watchtowers.« In other words, a desolate and forbidden zone.In reality, it serves the UN as an operative base for monitoring the local peace process. In »Zeitgeist«, however, it is a lawless space that becomes the unofficial platform for putting the battle plan of the novel's main character into action: to conquer the Islamic world with his girl band »G7«.7
A literary vision that relates very well to the context dealt with here: after all, the central facility of this »ceasefire wilderness« is the Nicosia International Airport, which has been officially unused since 1974 and left to go to ruin. Pictures such as those by Davide Hughes and Hussein Chalayan8 show it as a hopelessly outdated and dysfunctional complex: Cyprus Airways planes forlornly falling apart behind rampant barbed wire, empty runways with weeds sprouting up out of cracks in the asphalt, a reception building that has been sealed up and above whose entrance is written »No Entrance« in yellow lettering. Pictures that remind one less of an airport than of a plane cemetery. What »Zeitgeist« suggests, however, is that a dark power manifests itself here at night, as in a vampire film. A power that, in view of the story of Baghdad's airport, too, could be seen as a negative imprint of the empire. For, despite the fact that the airport, built in 1985, has been out of service for a good ten years, the imperial form of land development is reflected here as well.
The ultramodern Saddam International Airport remained closed after the Second Gulf War because of the UN embargo, despite Iraqi protests. It was not until August 2000 that the government demonstratively declared it reopened. This was a step that, as an ABC news article with the title »Open for Business?« suggested, was »mostly symbolic«.9 For at this time, there was no saying whether the UN would lift its embargo and thus its no-fly order, nor was the airport equipped with an adequate fleet of aircraft. In 1991, during the war, fifteen Iraqi Airways Boeings were flown to Jordan, Iran and Tunisia; they escaped destruction, but since then they have been stuck there. The passenger terminals and duty-free shops that were modernised especially for the reopening thus remained unused for the most part. And this, despite the flights by aid organisations and the weekly flights to Amman (Jordan) and Damascus (Syria), which still took place in 2002.


In the same way that the »Green Line« dividesNicosia International Airport right down the middle, making it ineligible for any territorial classification at a local level, Saddam International Airport was, in the nineties, a place without identity, suspended in the vacuum of international law: a non-place, so to speak. The characteristic thing here is the fact that, as the negative imprint of the empire, it represented a special kind of the non-place that airports are often defined as being.10 It is possible to speak of an extended concept of non-place, a concept that is expressed, for example, in the blurred pictures of Christian Lesemann.
In one photo, for instance, which appeared in the photo magazine »babel« as part of his photo series »We Have the Evidence«11, the fashion photographer takes pictures of exclusive small aircraft at an airport that is not further identified. A bus drives up, passengers get in the plane, the propellers and wings of another plane block the view, the runway is a sea of grain. But what can one really see? As in the other unfocused and grainy pictures, Lesemann gives a veiled view of a place where apparently untransparent processes are concentrated. This visual rhetoric of illusory transparence is what best illustrates the post-modern empire, which has been described by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt as a global networked power structure that is spread by streams of capital, technology and migration and no longer possesses a central pole of power: that is, in other words, a form of control wielded by streams, networks and bodies - a »non-place«.12
Shortly after it was renamed, Baghdad International Airport made a brief appearance as a special kind of entertainment topos against the background of its very special history: in a speech on 5 April 2003, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf depicted what the »TIME Magazine« showed in its impressive photo report »The Taking of Saddam International Airport«13 and what other news media had also presented in striking pictures as being simply a conspiracy of western media: in fact, possibly even a coup by the international information warriors at Rendon, a company that, already in the run-up to the Third Gulf War, had been responsible for a number of campaigns, in the course of which, for instance, an Iraqi-American Saddam imitator is said to have become the biggest radio star of the Iraqi resistance.14 In short: in the war of image-driven propaganda and counter-propaganda, the airport was, for the last time, temporarily suspended in an identity vacuum for a few hours. This time, it was a vacuum in information space. For Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf claimed, in his usual self-confident manner, that the airport was still in Iraqi hands, and promised the listening journalists an inspection of the site the very same day under his guidance.


Translated by Timothy Jones


1 Florian Rötzer: Die Vaporisierung der Diktatur.(The Vaporisation of the Dictatorship) Telepolis, 9 April 2003.
2 The complete headline read: 'Pax Americana´ - Die Neue Weltordnung (»Pax Americana«- The New World Order), Der Spiegel, No.17, 19 April 2003.
3 Parallel to the release of »Black Hawk Down« (Ridley Scott, 2002) Global Security put satellite pictures onto the Web that reconstructed the route of the fateful operation of 1993. Mogadishu International Airport once more played a decisive role as the starting point for this action. See
4 »Second runway opens at Narita«, Taipei Times, 8 April 2002.
5 Images and semantics that were revived by the protest movement in 1991 to stop the imminent building of another runway in an enlargement of Narita Airport.
6 See Jim Garamone: »Renamed Airport Gateway to Iraq's Future«, American Forces Press Service, 4 April 2003.
7 Bruce Sterling: Zeitgeist. New York 2000.
8 »Open for Business?«, ABC News, 17 August 2000.
9 They appeared for the first time in N_C Magazine, September, 2002.
10 See Marc Augé: Orte und Nicht-Orte. Vorüberlegungen zu einer Ethnologie der Einsamkeit. (Places and Non-Places. Introduction to and Ethnology of Loneliness) Frankfurt/Main 1994.
11 »Wir haben die Beweise« (We Have the Evidence), in: babel 02, Berlin 2002.
12 Rudolf Maresch: Das Neue Rom. (The New Rome) Telepolis, 11 August 2002.
13 See
14 See my article »Die Wahrnehmungsmanager« (The Perception Managers), Frankfurter Rundschau, 19 March 2003.