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Iraqi Mesopotamia / Arab Iraq trip report

yoda9999

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Joined: October 13th, 2007

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  • Added on: September 26th, 2010
Iraqi Mesopotamia / Arab Iraq trip report

This is a brief report of my trip to central Iraq with Hinterland Tours. This was a group tour with about 20 people, from Europe, US and Canada. I was there September 9-17. Places I visited were Baghdad, Erbil, Nimrud, Tikrit, Samarra, Babylon, Kerbala, and Najaf. Others also went down to the Sumerian sites and Basra. We spent about 2 days in Erbil and Kurdistan region.

Arabic Iraq is experimenting with inbound non-religious tourism. Right now, they have plenty of Iranians coming in for religious pilgrimage. But the security considerations are different. We required support from the Ministry of Interior and a security detail. In many places, we had police and military escort.

My overall impression of Iraq was that it was rebuilding and recovering from war. Electricity was sometimes sporadic. We had plenty of blackouts in hotels or restaurants, but they were very brief. Garbage was a problem everywhere, and burning garbage was normal. Even at historical sites, there was garbage. There was a very visible Iranian presence. I met many Iranian tourists, and saw many things "Made in Iran", from hotel shower slippers to street lighting projects. Iraq seemed like a very religous Shiite country. But the people were very tolerant and welcoming. We went to music stores, bought DVD's, some of us went to the alcohol store, etc.

Much has been said about the friendly atmosphere in Kurdistan. But I think the same thing can be said about the rest of Iraq. The Arab Iraqis were all very warm and welcoming to us. Many were happy to see us, wanted to take pictures of us, and wanted their pictures taken. Iraqis were very open and wanted to talk about everything, their culture, their art, politics, current events, religion, nothing was off the table. Many of the people we met were Shia Iraqis who did not have a good life under Saddam Hussein. Of course, their approach to us reflected that. They are trying to learn fast how to manage a nation. So accomodating Western tourists is also a challenge. I don't recall anything but warm and friendly people. We did not spend much time in Kurdistan. While there, I saw very few Iraqi flags. Kurdish flags were everywhere. Our driver had to leave papers at the Kurdistan border, and our security detail had to leave behind their sidearms. I am not so sure that going to Kurdistan really counts as "going to Iraq". Kurdistan is almost like a separate country.

Is Mesopotamia safe? While we were there, news reports indicated there were some attacks in Baghdad and Fallujah. But at no time did I experience any danger or threats. Baghdad is a large city with millions of people. We did have to move around quickly a bit in some parts of Baghdad, but that was about it. Maybe there was a false sense of security. There were checkpoints everywhere, military and police presence was heavy. The skies were clear, except for a few military helicopters and observation balloons. Right now, only organized tours sponsored by the Iraqi government are allowed. I don't think individual travel is. We had to arrive in Baghdad airport on the same day and get our visas in a group, which took much of the day. Also, the tours are not regular intervals and everything is subject to change. But Iraq is not ready for regular levels of foreign tourism, maybe in a few years. The tourism and public infrastructure is not there yet, the security situation is still fragile, etc. The major hotels in Baghdad all seem to be closed down for renovation. We stayed at mid level hotels, but I thought the accomodations were satisfactory. Just watch out for live wires, toilets that don't flush, etc.

Traveling in Iraq was obviously not easy and there were many inconveniences. To enjoy my stay, I had to have realistic expectations. Iraq is still recovering from war, and there is still sporadic fighting. There is widespread poverty, lack of access to water and electricity, etc. While we were there, temperatures reached 110 F, but we always had access to blocks of ice, water, and air conditioning. The archaeological sites were not well preserved, but that is not the fault of the people, but due to government neglect. There were numerous military checkpoints to go through. There was a great deal of waiting in traffic, waiting in queues, getting searched, pat downs, etc. Every major intersection in Baghdad had a checkpoint. It took hours just to get in and out of cities. Of course, when all these things are combined together, the heat, garbage, endless waiting, loss of appetite, tourists get impatient and things got frustrating. That was part of the adventure. There was internet access in the hotel in Erbil and Kerbala. There were no restrictions to photography except at checkpoints, and a few other places. For exampe, for some strange reason, the Baghdad Railway station didn't like us taking pictures of anything. They did let us, they just weren't happy about it. They also didn't want us to be on the train platform. But in vast majority of situations, photography was no problem.

I encourage everyone to travel on the new group tours to central and southern Iraq. More tours should be coming as the security situation improves. Iraq is far from ready for the regular levels of tourism that Egypt and Jordan has, but it is preparing. The people of Iraq seem eager to open their country to the world. The Iraqi tourism officials are gaining experience and working hard to accomodate more people. They know how to safely guide a large tour group in and out of the cities. Even in Saddam's time, Iraq was not easy for tourists to visit. The town of Tikrit was kept relatively isolated even from other Iraqis. But now, they are welcoming foreign visitors. If Iraqis cannot visit the world, they can bring the world to their streets. I hope more people will take the time and effort to travel in Arab Iraq, not just in Kurdistan. I hope to return to Iraq and visit the southern areas, meet the Marsh Arabs, and see Basra.

jeremystar

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Joined: February 24th, 2011

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  • Added on: February 24th, 2011
Fascinating! I would love to do this trip myself one day. Hopefully the situation will improve and it becomes safe to visit this part of the world independently.

Thanks for sharing your impressions.
http://www.traveliraqikurdistan.com travel information for the Kurdish region of Iraq

RyuKamagata

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Joined: March 28th, 2011

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  • Added on: May 9th, 2011
Wow... I'd LOVE to be able to see Iraq some time, though - as you suggested - it's quite difficult due to the political situation there right now. I think I'd feel almost dirty being a tourist in a country in the middle of a war, you know?




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