Is Traveling In Northern Iraq Safe?

December 16, 2010 by  
Travel

Probably the primary reason most people don’t consider Iraq a nation for their travel plans is due to one question that keeps coming up – how safe is traveling to Iraq? The answer to that question varies widely between specific parts of the country and changes based on whose jurisdiction you’re under.

sulaymaniyah street shops

iraqi kurdish regionsDefining Northern Iraq

It’s important to note that the geographical region of ‘Northern Iraq’ can be broken into roughly two areas. The western half, which is mainly under the control of the central Iraqi government, and semi-autonomous Kurdish regions of Duhok, Arbil, and Sulaymaniyah. Those 3 Iraqi cities and the surrounding areas are under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which acts as a largely independent region within Iraq.

  • This is a critical distinction to make when considering the security situation of northern Iraq.

The territory under the control of the KRG is realtively stable and sometimes referred to as the “gateway to Iraq”. The KRG-controlled region operates almost as its own state, with well defined (and policed) borders, checkpoints, and military. It is this physical boundary that helps insulate the Kurdish-controlled areas from much of the violence more prevalent just outside.

arbil iraq parkPockets Of Stability

Arbil is arguably where most travelers will enter northern Iraq and consequently the most stable. Arbil is easily accessible on several airlines including AtlasJet and Lufthansa, however most of the foreigners visiting the city are on business. Travelers arriving for the sake of tourism are by-in-large rare, and those traveling between northern towns even more so. (This fact was made even more evident by a solider Wandering Earl and I came across at a checkpoint.)

Foreigners are mostly ignored in northern cities by residents, however the opposite is true at the heavily guarded checkpoints at the Kurdish borders and in between each city. Extended questioning and delays are common and should be expected.

Although these northern areas (with exception of Kirkuk) are markedly less dangerous than other parts of Iraq, there is still a relatively increased risk of terrorism and violent crime, especially for foreign citizens.

Understanding The Security Threats Within Northern Iraq

Finding reliable crime statistics in the KRG-controlled cities of Duhok, Arbil, and Sulaymaniyah are difficult to come by yet at first glance, petty theft seems to be uncommon. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash can be seen at many money exchange stands in the large cities; at times without a clerk on hand to watch.

sulaymaniyah mosque

  • Although relatively safer than the rest of Iraq, the northern areas under the control of the KRG are still at increased risk of random violence.
  • Targeted violence against foreigners is much less common in KRG-northern Iraq and UN workers, US soldiers, and east-Asian immigrants walking around (without arms or guards) are not uncommon sights.

taxi in northern iraqAttacks on checkpoints, however, are not infrequent (as recent as November 2010), bombings at major hotels not unheard of, and there is a concerted effort by various terrorist organizations to move explosive material across the Kurdish borders.

  • Border Areas – Both the northern Iraqi areas along the Turkish and Iranian borders are prone to military incursions, shelling, and occasional air strikes.
  • No Emergency Line – There is no emergency telephone line in northern Iraq (e.g. 911 in the US or 112 in Europe).

Due to its precarious geographical location, complicated political situation, and its ongoing attractiveness as a high-profile target, the security situation in northern Iraq is variable at best.

More Than Meets The Eye

The relative calmness and ordinary routine found in Arbil, Sulaymaniyah, and other northern Iraqi cities doesn’t quite convey the recent history and increased threat of violence. I never felt unsafe or threatened in northern Iraq – however many of my experiences at checkpoints might unnerve many other travelers. Traveling in northern Iraq is generally safe for travelers – but how much of that is due to the fact that there are few of them –  is debatable.

view of erbil from citadel

The security situation in northern Iraq is improving and vastly superior to other parts of Iraq but it’s still too early to accurately assess the uncertain risks. Statistics are difficult to come by and while the KRG insists the Kurdistan-controlled areas are safe and foreign governments often otherwise, the truth lies somewhere in between.

With so few travelers in northern Iraq, chances of anything threatening your personal safety, random or otherwise, during a short time there is remote – how that will change as more tourists begin to book flights there remains to be seen.

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  1. rebaz says:

    I am originally from arbil and have returned from my home london on at least 10 occasions. I can assure you it is as safe as european cities with the added security of almost no petty theft. Not one foreigner has died in KRG controlled areas

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    • Anil P. says:

      While I don’t disagree that the KRG areas are much safer than most would assume, it’s not true that no foreigners have died there:

      http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/story/2012-03-01/us-teacher-killed-in-Iraq/53313792/1

      Although that case is not travel-related, reliable statistics on the area are not easily found.

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      • rebaz says:

        Ok, although that did only occur early this year and it was what seemed like a personal/isolated incident.

        I doubt there are other foreign deaths that have gone unheard of or that this may be down to unreliable statistics or lack of foreigners. Ideologically 99%+ of kurds are western/tourist-friendly and any act of violence against such a person would be out of nature as well as lead to a backlash.

        Any talk of insecurity is really clutching at straws. Saying that though drive carefully as you are more likely to be hurt in a car crash :)

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        • Anil P. says:

          True, I just wanted to clear up the inaccurate statement; though there are other cases, it’s not common in the north when compared to the rest of Iraq.

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  2. Interesting post, really appreciate your insights of Iraq. Before reading this post, traveling to Iraq is really out question to me, and now I guess I will consider it. Is there a huge different in their culture compare to other part of middle east countries? :)

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    • Anil P. says:

      Yes and no – the Kurds certainly have a unique history and are adapting to life post-war much differently than just about every other group in Iraq. It’s similar yet distinctly different :)

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  3. Becky says:

    Hi, Im wanting to travel to Erbil and go into Qaladza, I will be travelling with my 2 young daughters (7 & 4) as my husband and children have family their that my children have never met. I have never been out of England and i am a bit wary of what to expect traveling alone with 2 young children, although my husband tells me everything their is fine and we will have a great time, but he has not been for 5 years so im just after a bit of information really on what to expect, and what am i to have ready for my travel their? Also another worry for me is the anguage, i can hardly speak Kurdish, and my daughters dont know hardly anything either :/ I am desperate to go for my childrens sake.

    Thanks in advance :)

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    • Anil P. says:

      Will you be traveling with your husband?

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      • Becky says:

        No it will be just me and my 2 children.

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        • Anil P. says:

          Honestly, it’s not the easiest place to travel – especially if it will be your first time out of England. I would really recommend your husband have someone he trusts pick you up from the airport and be with you to ease the transition if at all possible. Getting between cities will also probably be best done with a hired driver or family member who can take you around.

          I hope that helps some but feel free to let me know if you have other questions and I’ll do my best.

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  4. Joanne says:

    Hi, i am supposed to be travelling to sulaymaniah soon to see my boyfriend who i have not seen in a year and a half. I 100% have to go because it has been to long for both of us . I will be staying near halabja where he and his family live. I already can speak basic kurdish, I can cook kurdish food and i am very acustomed to the kurdish way of life since living with my boyfriend for 5 years over here.. my main concern though is that i know that alot of muslim people look down on westerners and i am worried for my safety . I am also scared that there could be “fake” checkpoints where i will be asked to exit the vehical and then they would kill me…i know it sounds farfetched but i would just like a bit more information on how people in the sulaymaniah region react to westerners and should i be worried about say other people who are friends of his family not agreeing with him being with a westerner and then would that put us both in harms way??

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  5. Philip says:

    Hey there!
    First of all: thanks a lot for the review of your travels and the useful information and links provided above! :)
    looks very promising and makes me wanna run to the airport just in that very moment i read all this!

    My girlfriend and me was offered a Job in the Faruk Medical Centre in Sulimani.(http://www.farukmedicalcenter.com/default.aspx)
    The webpage looks promising, and the job would be for “only” 1 or 2 month.

    On the “Contact” part of the webspace appears a map of the city, including the location of the hospital. It seems a little far off – maybe you have an idea of how the districts are to be rated? (is it rather good to live/work on the boarder of the city, or would it be better to stay in the centre and take a taxi to work every morning?

    We very much would like to help people and improve the medical system there with our knowledge. On the other hand, we are used to travel to touristy places and like to party also ;)
    But to stay on-topic; getting a VISA for EU citizen should be no problem you said, right? How long will it be valid, and is it true, that you will be rejected at USA boarders when having the iraqi Visa in your passport?

    As we will be staying there for definitely more than one month, my next questions would be: is it safe and worth to have some weekend trips to the surrounding territory(great mountains), Turkey, Iran or the south?

    Sooooo many questions – but i will, for now, leave it to these core questions, and maybe later will ask more detailed – if you are willing to answer of course :)
    All the best and with the warmest regards from Riga,
    Philip

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  6. askar says:

    Sir,
    i have an employment offer from northern side of iraq.i am wondering how safe is northern side and i have an offer of 1500 usd per month with accomodation provided by the company , what is the approximate living cost (monthly) .and i have already submitted my documents for the visa processing ,how long it will take to get an employment visa in iraq? plz clear my doubt

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  7. Natalie says:

    A friend of mine is in Iraq at the moment. He is British, not sure where he is located though. He says they are not allowed off their base. There are a lot of foreigners there who have been contracted to do building work. He loves it , even though movement is restricted. Will send this link to his wife on Facebook and maybe he can tell you more.

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  8. Mark H says:

    Congrats on your efforts to visit this seldom-travelled and misunderstood area. Like a number of these places, I think it is clear that these seldom-travelled areas aren’t really ready to receive tourists anyway. I have visited two or three such countries over the years and while it was enjoyable to be there, I always felt I’d have enjoyed it more and expereinced more if I’d been there a couple of years later.

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    • Anil P. says:

      It’s making strides but not ready for large numbers of tourists; though it looks like they’re headed down the Dubai ultra-luxury route. Just a guess on my part but the new hotels, malls, and restaurants seem geared for travelers with money.

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  9. Dave and Deb says:

    Interesting. What made you two go to Iraq in the first place? Just curious, it is a place I would be interested in going to as well so I am definitely not asking in a judging manner. Just wondering what your trip was all about. We like to travel off the beaten path, but aren’t sure about going to a country that is currently at war. But it sounds like you had a great time there and it seems safe. I only wonder if Earl is right in his thoughts….were your just lucky? Would other tourists be as safe, or is it better to stay clear? Thanks for sharing this information.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Funny enough, Earl and I came up with the idea when we met in TBEX this past summer. I had always wanted to go and am trying to focus on the Middle East for some time. It’s a generally misunderstood part of the world, Iraq isn’t heavily traveled at all, and the danger is always alluring :)

      I’d say for most tourists, it’s not an ideal destination. The infrastructure most people would feel comfortable with isn’t there. Experienced travelers, like yourselves however, wouldn’t find it a problem.

      Personally, I don’t know how well the safety situation would scale. There are many unstable elements operating around and in the north. More travelers might mean increased/easy opportunities to disrupt what the KRG has going on. The focus and hope is that tourism may develop into an important part of the local economy which could make for an attractive target.

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  10. Priyank says:

    Hi Anil,

    Its commendable that you are visiting this part of Iraq – examples like this should be showcased. I know people who think it is unsafe to go anywhere outside North America and going to Iraq or Pakistan (my partner goes there next month) as a normal tourist is beyond thinkable.

    So some people like hiking dangerous cliffs, others like running marathons and yet others travel to Iraq. What’s with this whole thing of pushing one’s boundaries? ;-)

    Priyank

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    • Anil P. says:

      It’s part of what travel is about, the thrill is a great motivator and heightens the experience. The world is a big place, why not try and see a wide variety of it :)

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  11. Sherry Ott says:

    I love seeing the pictures from this area – a seldom seen part of the world. Very cool that you went there and love that you are sharing your experience to assist everyone out there considering it. I am a fairly adventurous traveler – but for some reason countries at war that potentially also may hate Americans are areas that I generally stay out of!

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    • Anil P. says:

      haha, funny thing is in northern Iraq most Kurds love America and especially George Bush. It was quite strange to hear so many people enthusiastically saying “I love George Bush!”

      Are you still headed to the Middle East – I remember you mentioning that Syria was in the cards?

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      • Sherry Ott says:

        Not sure about Syria yet – but I will def. be in Jordan starting Jan. 4th for a month and then in Lebanon the month of Feb. Then considering going to your home…Turkey for a few weeks. Will keep you posted!

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        • Anil P. says:

          Sounds good, putting together plans now for Jan, Feb, and through March; definitely let me know, I’ll be passing through many of the same places and of course in and out of Turkey :)

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  12. Hannah says:

    Hey everyone! I just came across this website and I am really interested in this topic as I am planning a trip to Turkey, Syria, and Jordan this year. I had always wanted to visit Iraq but never really thought the idea was feasible until this week when I read about some experiences other travelers had going through Iraqi Kurdistan. My question is how safe do you think it would be for a Western-looking female to travel alone in Iraqi Kurdistan? I am a pretty adventerous traveler, but the idea of going into relatively uncharted waters by myself is admittedly causing me some hesitation. I do speak Iraqi Arabic fairly well. Also, might anyone know of places to meet up with fellow travelers going through the region?

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    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Hannah,

      To be perfectly honest, I don’t think being a woman would pose any issue in northern Iraq; particularly if you stay within the borders of Kurdistan. As far as meeting up with other travelers there, it might be slightly difficult as there aren’t too many there!

      As for Turkey, Syria, and Jordan shouldn’t be tough at all. If you’d like I can ask around for you to get the ball rolling. Typically I use Twitter to meet people along my path (do you happen to have an account there?) – but hopefully can put you in touch with a few people here as well.

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      • Hannah says:

        Hi Anil,

        Thanks for your reply :) I just thought of another couple questions as well…Is the Iraqi visa hard to get? Do you have to get it ahead of time or can you get it at the border (if I was crossing over from Turkey)? Did you have any problems getting it? Also, what is the main way of getting around there? Is there any public transportation?

        That would be great if you could put me in touch with some people! I don’t have Twitter but I’m willing to make an account if it would help hehe…

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        • Anil P. says:

          Hi Hannah,

          You’re very welcome – are you a US or EU citizen? Then yes, it’s obtainable upon arrival – but keep in mind this stamp is only (technically) valid for the area of Kurdistan. It’s not quite the same thing as an Iraqi visa, which is only really relevant if you plan on going to the south.

          Here’s the exact procedure when going overland:

          http://www.wanderingearl.com/how-to-travel-overland-to-iraq-kurdistan/

          The main form of transportation in the cities is taxi (which are inexpensive) but you can see many things by foot in the major cities and likely won’t need it. To get between cities you’ll take shared taxis.

          Here’s a bit more about that:

          http://www.foxnomad.com/2011/01/07/a-digital-pocket-guide-on-visiting-northern-iraq-part-2/

          I’ve sent out a tweet with this comment so hopefully someone will get in touch with you but a Twitter account is a good idea. You’ll get in direct touch with *many* people now actively traveling. I can give you some names as a good start as well :)

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          • Hannah says:

            Thanks for the information! The links are definitely useful. I am a US citizen so I guess I theoretically wouldn’t have a problem getting in….

            I just made a twitter account and added you or “followed” you… or whatever it’s called haha

            Thanks again for the help…

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          • Anil P. says:

            You’re welcome Hannah and hello to Twitter, I’ve followed you back :) Yup, as a US citizen you shouldn’t have any problems with an entry visa.

            When is your trip? Would love to hear about your experiences when you come back. Feel free to drop a note here (if you remember of course!)

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  13. On looker says:

    America officialy handed over kurdistan to the KRG in 2007 becuase it was safe..

    Mixon tells Simon there are only 60 to 70 U.S. troops stationed in the Kurdish areas. “There’s no need for American forces up there because of the nature of the situation,” he explains.

    “I guess compared to being stationed in the rest of Iraq, it’s pretty good duty,” Simon remarks.

    “It’s good duty. I’ve been up there. I enjoy going up there,” the major general tells Simon.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/02/16/60minutes/main2486679.shtml

    Everyone else agrees that it’s safe.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Safe and relatively safe are two different things. Compared to the rest of Iraq, many places are paradise. I never said it wasn’t completely unsafe, but when put up against many other more popular travel destinations (there are over 60 nations with more visitors) even northern Iraq falls well below that criteria.

      Here’s a story from an American solider I came across at a checkpoint and his opinions and warning to Earl and I:

      http://www.wanderingearl.com/how-safe-is-traveling-to-iraq/

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  14. On looker says:

    Now, with foreign tourist numbers leaping to 132,541 last year, a 146% increase within two years according to figures released by the Ministry of Tourism. hardly a few.. and this is besides the 250,000 Iranians and a million Iraqis that visit yearly.

    http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2010/5/state3873.htm

    Here you will find better reports by people with better information.

    http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001126.html

    The KRG claims are proven by facts with less than 5 attacks in the last 7 years one can hardly say that kurdistan is unsafe.. what can we expect from a biased Turk though.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Assuming you considered the number of tourists visiting northern Iraq, and put that against the numbers of other nations it would be well less than 60th worldwide:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Tourism_rankings

      As I mentioned above, the reality is somewhere between the KRG (who has an interest in tourism) and other world governments whose job is to be overly cautious in their travel warnings. I do not believe my objectivity is in question for the majority of my readers – consider that your YouTube page says you are “100% anti-Turk”. I find that racist to be honest. I have never, not once, written something here with the purpose of leading people astray – to be frank you don’t know me or what my personal beliefs are.

      Some of the recent violence (which is definitely more than 5 in the past 7 years if you check the links above) are also mired in controversy:

      http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2010/9/state4203.htm

      By your own source the KRG figures are less than reliable.

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  15. Earl says:

    This post certainly highlights how complex is the situation and how difficult it is to really gauge the potential dangers for an ordinary traveler wanting to visit the region. And since our visit, I keep asking myself, “Is this place really safe or were we just lucky?”

    And interesting links included above, especially regarding the increasing crime in Baghdad and the Canadian Travel Warning. I was sort of surprised to see that they advise against all non-essential travel to Kurdistan as well.

    Again, were we just lucky?

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    • Anil P. says:

      I too keep asking myself that. A big part of the problem is the lack of reliable statistics, as well as the politics behind those saying it’s safe and others that it’s not.

      Apparently the KRG is really trying to push the safety and stability of the north for economic purposes; but it’s rather early to tell. The calms between the storms are growing longer and longer but does that mean it’s safe?

      When comparing it to the rest of Iraq it’s easy to say that, relatively, it is. How the numbers (if they were available) would stack up to many more popular travel destinations is far from clear.

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