BEIRUT (Reuters) - A passenger plane flying from Lebanon to Iraq on Thursday turned back after the Iraqi transport minister's son missed the flight and phoned Baghdad to stop the aircraft from landing, Middle East Airlines (MEA) said.
Marwan Salha, acting chairman of MEA, told Reuters the flight, scheduled to leave at 1240, had been delayed for six minutes while MEA staff looked for Mahdi al-Amiri, son of Hadi al-Amiri, and his friend in the business lounge.
"We made the necessary announcements and the last calls," he said. "The plane took off but one of the passengers turned out to be the son of the minister of Iraq."
Salha said that when Amiri arrived at the gate he was angry and said: "I will not allow the plane to land in Baghdad."
Twenty-one minutes into the flight, the Baghdad airport station manager called MEA operations to tell them there was no clearance to land, Salha said. The plane then returned to Beirut and the passengers disembarked.
"It's very disturbing because this is pure nepotism," Salha said, adding that he hoped to resume flights to Iraq on Friday but that there would not be another flight on Thursday.
Transport Minister Hadi al-Amiri is head of the Badr Organisation, once an armed Shi'ite militia, and a political ally of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Many Iraqis believe that relatives of elected officials and leaders of political parties act as if they are above the law.
Iraq's Transport Ministry confirmed the airliner had been turned around but said this was due to airport cleaning and that the minister's son had not been due to be a passenger on it.
Kareem al-Nuri, the transport minister's media adviser, said: "There were cleaning operations in the airport and specific measures were taken. We asked all flights not to land in Baghdad airport after 9 a.m. but this flight arrived after this time, so we asked it to turn back.
"This information (about the minister's son) is not true and the minister is not accepting such behavior. The minister's son was not scheduled to take that flight at all."
An official at Baghdad airport, who asked not to be named, said air traffic was normal, with 30 flights landing on Thursday. The only one turned around was the one from Beirut.
Iraqis mocked Amiri and his son on social media as news of the incident spread. A girl named Diana wrote: "Sounds like Uday and his father rose from the grave", a reference to the late Saddam Hussein and his son Uday, known for arbitrary behavior.
(Reporting by Oliver Holmes and Jamal Saidi in Beirut and Suadad al-Salhy and Ned Parker in Baghdad; Editing by Alistair Lyon)