NAJAF, Iraq: An Iraqi provincial council decided Thursday to ban flights by Bahrain's carrier Gulf Air in solidarity with those facing "repression" in the tiny Sunni-ruled kingdom.
The decision by Najaf provincial council came on the day that Gulf Air was resuming flights to various destinations in Shiite-majority Iraq and Iran after a break of more than a year.
The flights were stopped in March 2011, the month that Bahraini security forces backed by a Saudi-led Gulf force crushed a Shiite-led protest movement in a bloody crackdown.
"The committee formed to oversee the airport decided to ban the Bahraini company Gulf Air from conducting flights to Najaf in solidarity with the Bahraini people who are subjected to repression by authorities there," Najaf provincial council said in a statement.
Council spokesman Mohammed al-Khuzaie said the move was an expression of support for "the oppressed people of Bahrain."
Bahrain has witnessed sporadic demonstrations since March of last year, mostly outside the capital Manama, and the arrest of dissidents and crackdowns on protesters have continued, according to activists and rights groups.
A Gulf Air flight carrying about 40 passengers landed in Najaf on Thursday and the passengers were permitted to disembark, but future flights are to be banned.
Khuzaie said Gulf Air was targeted due to its ties to the state, and that the decision would remain in effect until further notice.
Millions of Shiite pilgrims each year visit the shrine city of Najaf, where Imam Ali, the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-low and cousin is buried.
Officials from Iraq's federal transportation ministry could not immediately be reached for comment on the provincial ban.
Najaf's decision is likely to increase tensions between Iraq and Bahrain, which have been strained in the past over the response of the Gulf monarchy to protests.