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Airport officials told to tighten security

The world's airports, trying to cope with the crush of a billion air travelers a year, were urged Thursday by leaders of the industry to tighten security because of the threat posed by Iraq as a potential harbor for Arab terrorists. In response to statements from Baghdad warning of possible terror attacks against Western targets to counter pressure from U.S.-led forces in the gulf, many airports have taken greater precautions but some remain lax about security.

"A great deal of work has to be done on explosives detection technology so that we can provide security while continuing to efficiently process passengers," said George Howard, president of the Airport Operators Council International, which represents operators from 850 airports around the world.

"Not all airports in the world are up to U.S. standards in terms of security," he added.

"In Israel, we have already taken all the precautions that we can think of," said Arye Grozbord, who runs Tel Aviv Airport and is the incoming chairman of the group. "But the more people there are traveling, the more difficult it is to provide security."

Worldwide air traffic increased 5 percent over the last five years to 1.1-billion passengers in 1989 and is expected to continue to rise.

The jets of U.S.-based airlines, considered the most likely targets of air terrorists, carried 37-million travelers overseas last year and another 416-million domestic passengers.

Iraq warned the United States last month of possible attacks against American targets in retaliation for what it called crimes and insults against the Arab and Islamic nations.

The State Department has said that radical Palestinian guerrilla leaders Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas are now operating out of Baghdad. "Evidence continues to accumulate that Iraqi-sponsored terrorism may occur in the near future," it said last month.

In Washington, a bill to improve U.S. airline security to prevent terrorist attacks was on its way to President Bush on Thursday following final congressional action.

The House passed the bill late Wednesday after Senate approval Tuesday. It aims to protect airlines against bombings and hijackings by requiring the presence of federal security managers at major American airports.

The 1985 airport massacres in Rome and Vienna by Arab guerrillas and the mid-air bombing of a Pan Am jetliner in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, brought heavy pressure on airports and governments to tighten security.

Travelers now routinely pass through metal detectors at airports, and personnel are trained to single out suspicious passengers and baggage. A few airports run baggage through expensive X-ray machines designed to detect plastic explosives.

But the debate remains over whether the public should be warned about terrorist threats against particular flights.

The Federal Aviation Administration and State Department were harshly criticized for not warning passengers that the Pan Am flight was a possible bomb target.

Currently, governments only occasionally share information on such threats. The Bush administration has appointed at least two officials whose mission is to enhance this aspect of international intelligence gathering.

Problems arise because of loose security at some airports, Howard said without citing specific cities. And those airports which do maintain tight security can delay passengers.