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Deborah Ale-Flint, Assistant Director of Aviation for the Oakland International Airport, right, answers questions as Omar Benjamin, Executive Director for the Port of Oakland looks on during a news conference at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland. (Ray Chavez/The Oakland Tribune)
Oakland International Airport officials apologized for prohibiting a planeload of U.S. troops, just back from Iraq, from entering the passenger terminal during a layover Thursday, prompting conservative pundits and bloggers to hold up the incident as an example of the Left Coast dishonoring soldiers.

"We apologize, I apologize to any members of the military that were on this flight and may have experienced some discomfort or perception of disrespect," said Omar Benjamin, executive director of the Port of Oakland, which operates the airport.

There was no disrespect intended when North American Airlines Flight 1777 was directed to wait two hours at a remote part of the airport, Benjamin said. The plane was onits way from Iraq to Hawaii.

Benjamin's apology came in the face of conflicting reports circulating across the nation painting the airport in the liberal-leaning Bay Area as a poster child for disrespect toward U.S. troops.

Although the airport said its decision was made "together with the TSA," the Transportation Security Administration denied playing a role.

"We didn't play any role in this," said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez, referring reporters to a statement posted Tuesday on the agency's Web site:

"At no time were service men and women prohibited from entering the sterile (secure) area of Oakland International Airport by TSA personnel or regulations. Airport officials, the airline and ground handling company coordinated the arrival and all services associated with this flight.


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At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, airport officials said they did not realize that the soldiers had been screened during previous stopovers in Kuwait and New York. They also were unaware that some of the troops, reportedly Marines, had meant to see locals during their two-hour layover, said Deborah Ale-Flint, the airport's assistant director of aviation.

Hilltop Aviation, which was contracted to provide ground services for North American Airlines Flight 1777, had said there were weapons aboard the flight, the passengers had not been screened, and did not tell the airport "that some of the service men and women onboard anticipated meeting family and friends," Ale-Flint said.

"If this information had been shared in advance," she said, "there would have been a different outcome."

As evidence of that, Ale-Flint noted that Hilltop had made such arrangements for an earlier North American flight that same day, and the troops were permitted inside the airport.

Authorities familiar with those events confirmed that the other flight's passengers were screened and allowed into the airport's secure boarding area. They also said that members of TSA advised airport officials on procedures for screening the second flight, if needed.

A woman answering the phone at Hilltop in Oakland said the manager of the office was the only person who could respond to questions about the issue, and he was out Tuesday and could not be reached.

The debate sparked by the incident has put Oakland's airport in the same political arena as Democrat and Republican jockeying to show who best supports and honors troops while arguing over the wisdom of pulling them out of Iraq.

Last week, Democrats, including Rep. Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton, blasted conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh for labeling Iraq War veterans who protest the war as "phony soldiers."

Now conservative bloggers and pundits are pointing to Oakland, "not far from San Francisco," notes Fox News pundit John Gibson, as a place where "the welcome mat was not out" for Iraq veterans. Gibson, citing an e-mail from a chaplain who had been on the flight sent to neoconservative National Review writer Michael Ledeen, said that the exclusion was "not a security measure."

"This smacks of the bad old days in the Bay Area when returning Vietnam vets were spat upon," Gibson opines on the Fox News Web site.

Airport officials repeatedly said they had the utmost respect for the nation's military. They said many port and city officials had served in the armed forces, including the president of the port's board and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums.

Staff writer Kelly Rayburn contributed to this story. Reach Erik N. Nelson at enelson@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-208-6410