Iraq opened a new airport in the southern city of Najaf on Sunday in what the prime minister said was a key step in the reconstruction of a country devastated by war.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, mostly Iranians, travel to Iraq every year to visit Shiite shrines in Najaf and another holy city, Karbala. The new airport is expected to boost the numbers of pious tourists.

At a ceremony, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki described the $250 million airport as a vital element in Iraq's economic development. A military airfield was renovated for the new airport, and several flights were expected to land on Sunday.

"The Najaf airport is a starting point for competition among provinces and local governments to make extraordinary progress toward reconstruction," al-Maliki said.

"We were determined to face the terrorism that was about to destroy Iraq. The strong will of the federal government has fought and defeated it in all of its forms," al-Maliki said.

Violence in Iraq is at its lowest level in four years, though bombings and shootings persist in many areas.

Najaf was the scene of heavy fighting in 2004 between American troops and militiamen loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Under the Sunni-led dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the Shiite population in southern Iraq was restricted in its religious activities and brutally repressed in a rebellion after the 1991 Gulf War.