WARNING: Iraq is presently a war zone. Traveling there is extremely unsafe and strongly discouraged. All foreigners are in danger of kidnapping, murder, and general armed violence. Tourism visas for Iraq are not granted at the moment.
Although the northeast provinces which comprise Iraqi Kurdistan can be considered safe for foreigners, the margins for errors are small. While no foreign deaths have occurred in the province since the 2003 Iraq invasion, many foreign deaths have occurred elsewhere in Iraq. Note that citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan themselves generally do not leave the province, as their lives are also in danger (although citizens of Kirkuk are an exception).
If it is necessary to visit, then remain cautious at all times, and consult your embassy before you leave. For further information, see war zone safety.
The bottom line: do your research and be careful.
Iraq (Arabic: العراق Al-Irāq) is a country in the Middle East. It lies at the north end of the Persian Gulf and has a small (58 km) coastline in the southeast of the country. It is surrounded by Iran to the east, Kuwait to the south, Saudi Arabia to the southwest, Jordan to the west, Syria to the northwest, and Turkey to the north.
Iraq is the birthplace of many of the Earth's oldest civilizations, including the Babylonians and the Assyrians. A part of the Ottoman Empire from 1534, the Treaty of Sèvres brought the area under British control in 1918. Iraq gained independence in 1932. On 14 July 1958, the long-time Hachemite monarchy was overthrown in a coup led by Abdul Kassem that paved way to radical political reforms, including the legalisation of political parties such as the Ba'ath and the Communist Party, both key players in the coup (also called the 14 July Revolution). Following the Revolution, the Soviet Union gradually became its main arms and commercial supplier.
In February 1963, Kassem was overthrown and killed in a second coup that brought the Ba'ath Party into power. Internal divisions would follow for the next five years, until another coup on 17 July 1968 led by Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr (with Communist support) stabilised the party. Relations between the Communists and the Ba'athists ranged from mutual cooperation to violent mistrust, culminating in the purge of Communists from the army and the government by 1978, causing a temporary rift with the Soviet Union. On 16 July 1979, Bakr resigned and was succeded by right-hand man Saddam Hussein, who carefully purged his enemies and became a dictator almost overnight.
The next twenty-five years took a grinding toll on the country. A long war with neighboring Iran in the 1980s cost hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. The invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and subsequent Gulf War caused further casualties, followed by civil war inside the country and a decade of international sanctions.
Iraq was invaded in 2003 by a U.S/U.K.-led coalition of forces, who removed Saddam Hussein from power. Although some transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government has occurred, the country remains occupied by 140,000 US and UK soldiers. Rebuilding on a massive scale inside larger cites has occurred.
Most of Iraq has a hot arid climate. Summer temperatures average above 40°C (104°F) for most of the country and frequently exceed 48°C(118°F). Winter temperatures infrequently exceed 21°C (70°F) with maximums roughly 15 to 16 °C (59 to 61 °F) and night-time lows occasionally below freezing. Typically precipitation is low, most places receive less than 250mm (10 in) annually, with maximum rainfall during the months of November to April. Rainfall during the summer is extremely rare except in the very north of the country.
All visitors to Iraq, require a visa for entry. Currently, contract and military personnel working for the U.S. Department of Defense are exempt from this visa policy, as long as they present a valid Common Access Card (CAC card) issued by the Department of Defense. This only holds true if you are flying into the military side of BIAP by Gryphon Air or on a military flight. If you fly into Baghdad International without an entry or working visa you will be deported.
For those entering the country without a visa, one can be purchased at most border crossings for US$80. The border crossing from Turkey to Iraq (Silopi/Zakho) did not charge for a visa as of March 2007. Total crossing time is around 1 hour for individuals. If you intend to acquire a visa at your port of entry, be prepared for long waits, and bring plenty of documentation about who you are and what your business in Iraq is. Letters on company or government letterhead are preferred.
Obtaining a travel visa to Iraq is complicated and time consuming. You can obtain an application at the Embassy of Iraq in Washington, D.C.. However, all applications are vetted in Baghdad. Even if you do obtain a visa, you may still be refused entry into Iraq once you arrive. Visas can be acquired in advance at the Iraqi embassies in London, Paris, and Washington, D.C..
Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) (formerly known as Saddam International Airport) (IATA: BGW; ICAO: ORBS, now ORBI) is about 16 km from the center of Baghdad.
The civilian side of BIAP continues to grow rapidly every week.
Currently, Royal Jordanian Airlines (RJ) operates two roundtrip flights daily from their base at the Queen Alia International Airport (IATA: AMM) in Amman.
Internet booking has recently become possible for RJA flights to Baghdad, and Iraq has now been effectively opened to the public.
After the 2003 invasion, some of Iraqi Airways Aircraft were retrieved from storage in Syria and Jordan and are now flying again under the Iraqi Airways name. Iraqi has recently begun computerised operations, and tickets for future European routes are now theoretically available for reservation online via the IA website. Although IA does not yet hold an FAA airworthiness certificate, they operate from London to Arbil/(Erbil) using various charter flight providers, tickets for this slightly disorganised system are available from Iraqi's appointed agent "You Should Travel" - Royal Jordanian (RJA) is advisable over Iraqi for the time being, as its schedule is much more comprehensive.
In addition to Iraqi Airways, Turkish Airways has begun operating flights between Istanbul (IATA: IST) and BIAP several times per week.
Diplomats, private military contractors, and intelligence agents can use Gryphon Airlines. Gryphon offers flights between the military side of BIAP and Kuwait City.
Additional Services to the city of Van, Turkey are offered by Turkish airlines from most western cities via Istanbul, from here a taxi will take you to the border for the equivelant of $35 - $200 depending on your bargaining skills (note that Turkish drivers will only usually accept Lira, Euros or Pounds Sterling)
For those working for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Iraq, there are two charter airlines operating into BIAP. Skylink and AirServ operate frequent flights. Travel on either of these services requires sponsorship by your NGO to get you onto an approved traveller list maintained by each. Schedules and services can be irregular, and change frequently.
The civilian side of the airport is under control of the Iraqi government. The military side is still controlled by the U.S. military, as well as all Iraqi airspace above FL100. Take-offs and landings at BIAP are controlled by the Iraqi Ministry of Transportation, under the advisement of the U.S. military. Several critical pieces of Air Traffic Control gear have not been turned on, and the result of this is that BIAP can only accommodate Visual Flight Rule (VFR) landings, not instrument landings. Because of this, the frequent sandstorms that hit the area can obscure visibility and cause flights to be turned away. It is not unusual for commercial flights to make it all the way to BIAP, and then turn around and return to their origin due to limited visibility on the runway. To protect against the extreme danger of ground-based attacks, incoming civilian flights descend from cruising altitudes in a tight spiral within protected BIAP airspace.
When departing at BIAP, be prepared for long, disorderly, and excessively slow lines wherever you go. If you are not working in Iraq on a government contract, your entrance to the airport grounds about three or four miles from the airport terminal will require you and your vehicle to wait in line to be searched. These security checkpoints can take from two to three hours to process through. The best strategy is to find accommodations somewhere within the BIAP area of control on the day prior to your flight so that you aren't subjected to the long wait and end up missing your flight.
All airlines operating services at BIAP have a 100% bag matching policy. All bags, whether carry-ons or checked luggage, are lined up on the tarmac next to the aircraft. Each individual passenger must physically touch and claim their bags before a baggage handler and security personnel will match it and then load it into the hold. Any bags left on the tarmac after the boarding process is complete are not loaded and are taken away from the terminal area to a secure facility for disposal.
Flights into the Kurdish region in northern Iraq arrive at Erbil International Airport. International carriers include Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Royal Jordanian, Etihad and Viking Airways which flies to Sweden. The Kurdish Region, being relatively safer than the rest of Iraq, has seen enormous growth and investment since 2003, making Erbil a convenience destination for business in the region.
After twenty years of non-service, a once-weekly passenger train has recently been put in service between Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey and Mosul, crossing a short strip of Syrian territory. It departs 9PM every Thursday from Gaziantep and arrives in Mosul 2PM next day, costing €25 pp. This is the only way of arriving in Iraq by rail for the time being. (Update, Aug 2010. Due to a request by Iraqi Railways, Gaziantep–Mosul service has been suspended until further notice. Website of Turkish State Railways still list the train—with a note that it is temporarily not in service—which means it is likely that the train will be back in service in the future.)
Cars can be the most dangerous method of travel into the country. On reaching the border it is advisable to leave your taxi/rental car, for an armored 4x4, these are available for hire, with an armed guard if required, from the British security company GENRIC for £300 ($460) approx.
Driving in from Turkey is the best method of entry into the Northern part of the country. This area of the country is relatively safe, at least compared to the rest of the country. Border police and locals will advise you which cities are safe to travel in (Zakho, Dohuk, Erbil, As-Sulaymaniyah etc.), and will warn you away from specific cities (such as Mosul or Baghdad).
From Diyarbakir, Turkey you will drive south east to Zakho, Iraq. It is possible to take a previously arranged taxi, the average cost of this taxi ride is $150 American dollars and most of the drivers only speak Kurdish or Arabic. You will often switch taxis in Silopi about five minutes from the Iraqi border, or you will change cars about 70km from the border and continue on from there. The taxi driver will then take care of all your paperwork at the border. This involves your driver running from building to building getting paperwork stamped and approved. You must have a photocopy of your passport for the Turkish section of the border, which they require that you leave with them (the photocopy, not your passport).
A much less expensive option is to take a bus from Diyarbakir directly to Silopi. This won't cost more than about 20 YTL. From the Silopi otogar (bus station), it's easy to get a taxi to Zakho. A good taxi driver can handle all of the photocopying and paperwork for the Turkish side.
At this point you will finish driving across the border crossing into Iraq. Your taxi driver will then take you to the Iraqi immigration and customs section. All persons and vehicles entering Iraq must be searched for contraband by the customs officers, and their vehicles are registered and pay some sort of stamp tax, however, occasionally, searches are not conducted. Without this stamp tax, it is illegal for a non-Iraqi vehicle to purchase gas at any of the state-run gas stations all over the country. After paying any import duties to customs and receiving the vehicle stamp, the immigration officers will check your passport and stamp it if you have a visa. Additionally, at some land border crossings, your fingerprint and/or photo will be taken. As of July 2008, there was no visa fee at this border crossing.
At this point, you will be at the border taxi stand, a few kilometers outside of the city of Zakho, and may need to hire another taxi to get to Zakho's city center (5,000-10,000 Dinars). For the taxi ride from the Turkish city where you changed cars to Zakho, it's about $40 US dollars. This is a safe place to meet your friends or to charter a taxi into another part of the country. Enjoy some tea while waiting.
For land crossings from Jordan, be prepared for a long ride. The trip through the eastern Jordanian desert is much like a moonscape. The journey from Amman to Baghdad can take anywhere from 10-15 hours. You will depart Amman between 5AM and 10AM, and arrive at the border crossing about four hours later. The border crossing can take anywhere from an hour and a half (on a very good day) to more than five or six hours. Entering Iraq usually takes about half as much time as leaving Iraq. The Jordanian immigration and customs officers are very finicky about whom they will let in, and they will often shut their side of the border and not allow anyone to enter for unspecified reasons.
The trip from the border to Baghdad is VERY dangerous. The route is full of highway bandits and gangs of thieves that prey upon unprotected travellers. Travelling this route without adequate communications gear or weapons of any kind is STRONGLY DISCOURAGED. Do not make any stops along this route, if traffic becomes stalled for any reason on the highway (other than a possible IED), then it is best to make circles until traffic flows again. Vehicles, especially those that may be occupied by westerners, are subject to attack at any time. Carry extra fuel and plenty of food, and utilize U.S. military checkpoints to rest or stretch your legs.
Travelling from the Kuwaiti border is just as difficult as crossing from Jordan. The Kuwaiti crossing is complicated even more by the fact that Kuwaiti immigration and customs officers are even more strict than the Jordanians and anything at all can cause them to arbitrarily block your entry or exit. Sneaking into a military convoy is not advised as your vehicle might be mistaken for a suicide attacker by the turrent gunners in the convoy.
Cars can be purchased relativity cheaply at the Kuwaiti border. Reliable but inconspicuous transportation is a must in Iraq. It is probably best to buy a vehicle that blends in with the other cars on the road. Renaults and Kias along with less familiar Eastern European and Asian brands are common. The majority of Iraqi cars are actually privately owned taxis that are painted orange on the fenders and white everywhere else. BMWs and Mercedes are also seen in Iraq but are less common, especially nice ones, which usually have the steering wheel on the right side. A feasible option for the determined tourist would be to purchase a used BMW with a good engine, beat up the exterior, paint it orange and white, beat it again, scuff it up to produce a slight amount of rust, and one would have a very close approximation of an Iraqi vehicle. Again the key is to blend in, not stick out.
It is possible to enter Iraq from Jordan by taking a bus from Amman. Other countries may have bus service to Iraq. Third party nationals can also gain entry into Iraq for work purposes; these buses usually depart from Kuwait.
Driving at night may be a safer alternative to daytime driving, but a few rules to follow:
The past 40 years of disastrous government and devastating wars has taken its toll on Iraq's travel industry. After the fall of the Saddam Hussein government, which was virulently hostile to the Shia religion, religious pilgrims, mostly from the Middle East, Iran, and Central Asia, have returned in large numbers to the holy sites of southern Iraq, especially to the spiritual home of Shia Islam in Karbala. Religious pilgrimage remains quite unsafe, but there is a greater degree of safety in numbers, and in being familiar with the Arab region. And of course, pilgrimage is a more urgent reason for travel than sightseeing!
One can only hope that this great and ancient region soon sees increased security and stability, for it makes a fascinating travel destination for anyone interested in history, be it in ancient history 4,000 years old, medieval Islamic and later Ottoman history, or the modern history of the early 21st century. The aforementioned conflicts and misgovernment have not been kind to Iraq's ruins, especially in terms of the massive rebuilding done on ancient Babylon by the Hussein government and later negligence by foreign military presence. But the pull of such ancient cities as the Babylonian capital Babylon; the ancient city of Ur, of mankind's first great civilizations, Sumeria; major Parthian cities at magnificent Hatra and the capital Ctesiphon; and the Assyrian capital of Ashur, remains great enough to overlook the damage done.
The holiest sites of Shia Islam outside of Saudi Arabia are in Iraq's fertile heartland of Lower Mesopotamia. The Shia-Sunni split in Islam occurred over a dispute in the mid-seventh century C.E. as to the true successor of the Prophet Muhammad, with the Shiites supporting Ali ibn Abi Talib, who would become the first Imam, and whose Caliphate capital was located in the medieval city of Kufa. Ali's tomb is found in present day Najaf at the Imam Ali Mosque, one of Shia Islam's most holy sites. The third Imam, grandson of the Prophet, Husayn ibn Ali, is widely revered as one of Shia Islam's greatest martyrs, and the two grand mosques of Karbala, Al Abbas Mosque and Imam Husayn Shrine (which stands on his grave) are the sites of the Shiites' most important pilgrimage, to observe the Ashura, the day of mourning for Imam Husayn. Samarra is home to another one of the most important Shia mosques, Al-Askari Mosque, which serves as the tomb of Imams 'Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-'Askari. Tragically, this mosque is badly damaged, suffering explosions in sectarian violence in 2006, destroying the dome, minarets, and clock tower. Lastly, Al-Kadhimiya Mosque in Kadhimiya is revered, as it is the burial place of the seventh and ninth Imams, Musa al-Kadhim and Muhammad at-Taqi. Also buried within this mosque are the famous historical scholars, Shaykh Mufid and Shaykh Nasir ad-Din Tusi. Iraq is also home to significant holy sites of Sunni Islam, especially Baghdad's Abu Hanifa Mosque, built around the tomb of Abu Hanifah an-Nu'man, the founder of the Ḥanafī school of Islamic religious jurisprudence.
In terms of modern attractions, most are the big modernist sculptures and palaces of the Saddam Hussein government, located primarily in Baghdad (or on top of some of the world's most important heritage sites...). Given the warfare, external and internal, and government atrocities committed against its own people over the past 40 years, one can only expect that the future will see widespread construction of memorials to those who suffered. But such developments may have to wait until the nation's turbulent present settles down. In the meantime, it is possible (albeit often dangerous) to visit the cities and sites of battles that have become household names throughout the world in the most recent conflict.
Arabic is the national language of Iraq, but English is so commonly spoken there that most travelers will get by in the various shops, markets and cafes. The downside is that speaking English will immediately identify you as an outsider. This is dangerous because of the strong underground network of Iraqis who inform attackers of possible target opportunities.
Kurdish is spoken in the Kurdistan region, in one of two varieties: Kurmanji and Sorani. Kurmanji is spoken in and around Dohuk while Sorani is spoken in and around Arbil (Hewlar) and Sulaymaniyah. These two varieties are mutually unintelligible. However, Arabic is also widely spoken, and the number of speakers of English is on the rise.
Iraqi dinar is the official currency, however you will also be able to spend Euros € and US Dollars $ almost everywhere. Be aware that most people do not like to make change for large bills. Also note that any defects in the bills (creases, ink stamps from banks, tears, etc.) will raise suspicion that you are a counterfeiter. Don't bring old bills with you, either. Carry mostly small bills in the form of Iraqi dinars for daily spending cash. Since the introduction of the new Iraqi dinar, its widespread acceptance and confidence has reduced the prominence of the USD, and many shopkeepers are now refusing to accept them. However, most people will still pay large hotel bills or rent payments using USD or EUR due to the sheer volume of notes required to pay with dinars. The conversion rate fluctuates from day to day and from town to town, but is around 1175 dinar to US$1. Inflation used to be relative high (65% a year since 2003) but in recent years it is much lower than before (11% in 2008), which makes the Iraqi dinar becomes an attractive target for investors, unlike the Vietnamese dong.
Learn the security features of the new dinar and dollar notes; the former Iraqi government was known to be making passable $20, $10, and $5 U.S. notes, and these counterfeiters are apparently still in business.
Alcohol is legal in Iraq and Street vendors can usually get alcohol if you really need it, but again this is just asking to be identified as an outsider. Furthermore, while Alcohol is legal many insurgent groups in Iraq have targeted Alcohol vendors and users.
Sleep in the hot summer months can be difficult. Sleeping outside and near flowing water is the most comfortable setting one can find outside of air conditioning.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, there are plenty of hotels and although they are hard to find in any travel guide, anyone on the street will direct you to a nearby place. There's no shortage in Zakho, Dohuk or Arbil. Rates run about 15 USD to 25 USD per night for a single room with bathroom.
Work in Iraq pays very well. Typical foreign contractors can make up to $100k per year for security and admin work.
Even people who have always lived in Iraq and who are uninvolved with political issues are often subject to kidnapping-for-profit (also often used for political reasons), which can be fatal if a ransom is not paid. The ransom price is very high and few governments will pay it.
Iraq is beset with numerous problems that make travelling risky and difficult. The security situation is perilous in just about any area of the country, and continues to deteriorate under continuing terrorist attacks. Resistance to continuing military occupation, U.S. and U.K. forces, and Iraqi military, police or anyone associated with the Iraqi government, as well as increasing factional and sectarian conflict makes street warfare, bombings, and other acts of armed violence daily occurrences.
The central third of the country is the most volatile; the southern ports are less dangerous, but only relatively so. However, northern Iraq, or Kurdistan is safe and has suffered from very little violence since 2003. Major cities, including Baghdad, are fertile grounds for political upheavals, kidnappings, and other underground activity, so tread lightly. The Kurdish peshmerga (military) is over 100,000 strong and every road, town, city and even village has checkpoints going in and out. All non-Kurds are searched thoroughly and occasionally followed by the internal secret police. However fear not, this is why there is almost no chance of terrorism in the North. The police are friendly and everyone is happy to meet foreigners, especially Americans.
Traveling alone makes you an easy kidnapping target, and is best avoided – if possible travel with a translator/guard. There are comprehensive private and state security services available for your personal protection - you are strongly advised to use the available options for your own safety. If employed in Iraq, consult your employer on how to handle your personal safety. Independent contractors will usually have security provided by their clients, if no security is provided you should seriously consider not traveling to Iraq, if you must go you should hire armed security and get proper training in appropriate protective gear, survival, and weapons.
Be aware that Iraq, like any war zone, has minefields everywhere, do not walk into fields, especially marked ones unless you're absolutely sure that it's safe. In short, do not go anywhere without escort from the Iraqi army.
It is not safe for short term visitors to drink the water anywhere in Iraq. It is best to always drink bottled water, preferably made by a Western or Jordanian company. It will usually be sold at vendors and large stores, and will be easy to find. Most Iraqi water companies pump their water directly from the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, treat it with ozone, and then filter it into bottles. The taste is often not very good, and those with sensitive systems should not drink it. Many street vendors will offer drinks such as water with a lemon twist, which should be presumed unsafe for foreign visitors.
Those with experience in Iraq should use their discretion and past experience when purchasing drinks.
Drinking the local tea (chai) can be safe for some people since it is brought to a boil before serving, but when in doubt, insist that bottled water be used. Many kinds of water-borne disease, pollution, and infectious agents are not affected by boiling of water, and are still present in the water after boiling.
As a walk past an Iraqi butcher shop will demonstrate, food preparation standards are not the same as in Western countries, and consumption of local food can make a visitor ill. Try to bring your own. As tap water is generally not potable, you should especially avoid uncooked foods.
Should you find your body in the uncomfortable position of rejecting food and water due to something you shouldn't have drunk, immediately find someone who speaks Arabic and send them to a local pharmacist and request a product known locally as "InterStop" (similar to co-phenotrope/Lomotil). This works better than any well-known western brands.
Never show the soles of your feet to others. This may be considered very disrespectful by most Iraqis, unless you are in the company of friends. When in the company of friends, it's still best to excuse yourself before putting your feet up in the air with the soles of your feet in the direction of any person.
Don't spit in public or in the direction of others, even when obviously done without malice.