Iraq travel guide
Iraq may be synonymous with strife, a land of dusty, dubious conflicts, but what you don’t see in the mainstream media are the country’s many attributes: its fantastic birdlife, shimmering oases, turquoise rivers, fertile valleys, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and stunning cityscapes. Some of the world’s oldest societies came out of this ancient land and many refer to the region as the ‘cradle of civilisation.’
But despite its glorious past, the country has little to celebrate at present. Most of Iraq’s political, social, physical and economic infrastructures were destroyed by the US-led invasion in 2003. Successful elections and the withdrawal of troops in 2009 seemed to herald Iraq’s road to recovery and there were reasons to be optimistic: despite continuing violence, tourism had climbed back up to an impressive two million people a year by 2013 and plans were afoot to increase that number threefold.
The government even announced that it would restore the Arch of Ctesiphon, the world’s biggest arch made of bricks, and what remains of the ancient Persian capital of the same name. Also revealed were plans to repair the damage done to the southern marshes, which Sadam Hussein drained, and use its status as a bird haven to create a centre for eco-tourism.
Since 2013, though, the security situation has rapidly deteriorated, culminating with the Islamic militant group ISIS seizing large swathes of territory in the north in 2014. The Iraqi government has since pushed back against the insurgency, but the situation remains highly volatile with no end in sight.
Despite government warnings to avoid travelling to the country, a few adventure tour companies are still taking small groups to Iraq, albeit not the north. If and when the country finally stabilises, there’s little doubt that tourists will return in greater numbers to the ‘cradle of civilisation’. But until then, travel to Iraq is strongly advised against.
438,317 sq km (169,235 sq miles).
37,547,686 (UN estimate 2016).
84.5 per sq km.
President Fuad Masum since 2014.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi since 2014.
230 volts AC, 50Hz. Various two- and three-pin plugs are in use. Electricity supplies are unreliable.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
British government officials serving in Iraq live and work under strict security rules. All British officials live in secure, guarded accommodation and travel with close protection teams at all times. Depending on the threat level, they may be prevented from travelling to certain areas of Iraq.
Hotels and guesthouses used by foreign nationals and the government of Iraq are subject to regular threats. The British embassy does not allow official visitors to stay in a hotel overnight outside the Kurdistan Region, however attendance to meetings in hotels are assessed on case by case basis.
If you travel to areas of Iraq to which the FCO advise against all but essential travel, you should take appropriate security precautions before travelling. Outside of the Kurdistan Region you are strongly advised to employ a private security company, make arrangements for secure accommodation and transport and consider pre-deployment training.
Avoid any demonstrations or large gatherings of people; if you become aware of any nearby violence, leave the area immediately.
As part of Arba’een religious observations, processions and events will take place throughout Iraq, especially in Karbala and Najaf, during November. Religious gatherings have previously been targeted by terrorists.
The government of Iraq has begun to take measures to improve the structural integrity of the Mosul Dam as there is a risk the dam could fail. It’s currently impossible to accurately predict if or when this might occur. A failure could lead to major flooding in the Tigris river valley, from Mosul to Baghdad. As there’s likely to be little warning of a failure, it will be logistically impossible for the British Government to evacuate you. The British Embassy has contingency plans to ensure staff are safe in the event of failure. You should make sure you have contingency plans in place and monitor media reporting and this travel advice.
British nationals in Baghdad should have robust contingency plans in place and continue to monitor media reporting. You should stay in close contact with your private security companies and monitor our travel advice pages. Routes in and out of Baghdad may become blocked and airports closed or inaccessible at little or no notice. You should plan and check your routes in advance of travelling.
In recent months Turkey has conducted a number of airstrikes in the far north of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). On 8 September 2015 Turkish troops crossed the border into the KRI in pursuit of alleged militants and on 29 November 2015 Turkey shelled militants in villages bordering Turkey and Iraq. Take extra care in mountainous areas, particularly near the border with Turkey. Crossing points along the Iraq-Turkey border may also be affected.
The Kurdistan Region is administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government which has considerable autonomy within Iraq.
While the Kurdistan Region has a different security environment to the rest of Iraq, Daesh controls territory nearby. The security situation in the Kurdistan Region could deteriorate quickly.
Following fighting in Ninewah province, large numbers of internally displaced people have travelled to Dohuk province in the Kurdistan Region, joining others already taking refuge there.
Foreign nationals crossing the border from Syria into the KRI have been arrested for immigration offences in recent months. If prosecuted offenders could face a prison sentence of up to 5 years.
There are no country-wide curfews at present, but curfews and vehicle bans can be enforced at short notice, particularly around religious holidays, pilgrimages and key political dates like elections.
Border crossing points with countries neighbouring Iraq may close with little or no notice. There are reports that a number of Iraqi border crossings with Syria are now under Daesh control and have been closed. Three Saudi Arabian border guards were killed at the Arar crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia on 5 January 2015. Check whether border crossings will be open before travelling through these areas.
Baghdad, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Basra International Airports are generally considered secure, but Baghdad International Airport has been the target of attacks in the past. You should take care within the terminals. Don’t leave Baghdad or Basra International Airports without taking adequate security precautions.
Iraqi Airways’ permission to operate to/from points in the EU has been suspended. This is because Iraqi Airways has been unable to satisfy the European Aviation Safety Agency that the airline meets the requirements for non-EU airlines operating to/from the EU.
On 26 January 2015, a Fly Dubai aircraft was struck by gunfire on approach to Baghdad International Airport. No injuries were reported but some carriers temporarily suspended flights. On 15 March 2015, several rockets landed on the outskirts of Erbil, to the west of the city. No injuries were reported but some carriers temporarily suspended flights to and from Erbil airport.
Flight schedules may change without notice. Contact your airline or travel company for the latest information before travelling.
Maritime facilities are under a high risk of attack. Maritime and sailing craft should take great care in the northern Persian Gulf. Vessels transiting the Gulf of Oman, Northern Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Bab El Mandeb regions may be at increased risk of attack. You should consider any regional tensions that may affect your route.
Road travel within Iraq remains highly dangerous and there continue to be fatal roadside bombings and attacks on military and civilian vehicles. False vehicle checkpoints have been used to launch attacks. There is also a risk of carjacking and robbery.
Road traffic accidents are frequent and often result in fatalities.
The British Embassy in Baghdad and the British Consulate-General in Erbil operate a limited consular service by appointment only. It is highly unlikely that the Embassy in Baghdad will be able to intervene in any Iraqi visa-related matters on entry into Iraq, travel to unsecure areas of Baghdad outside the International Zone, or make a visit to a police station in the International Zone within Baghdad or any Iraqi prison (consular staff will, however, try to make contact by telephone).
Advice to business
A number of UK companies visit and operate successfully in Iraq. However, movement is restricted and companies nearly always travel with close protection security teams. Specific guidance for companies seeking to do business in Iraq can be found on the UK Trade & Investment website (UKTI). UKTI are also able to put you in touch with companies operating in Iraq who offer security services. For more information see Operating in high-risk environments: Advice for business