About two years ago during a 4th of July event at a local hotel here in Erbil with the America-Kurdistan Friendship Association, I met an American guy who had ridden his motorcycle from Turkey into Iraq. After a few months teaching English, (there are a fair number of young expats teaching here, and if you’re interested, this place is hiring), he intended to ride down to Baghdad and Basra before heading northeast into Iran. He told me his plans, I advised him it would be safer to skip Baghdad and Basra and just go straight into Iran via Kurdistan, and then never heard from him again.
Then last month I was having lunch at a military dining facility in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit with a fellow Georgetown grad when I told the story. My lunch partner, a governance officer at a PRT in Diyala Province, said he knew this guy. It seems he made it all the way to Baquba before being arrested by the city’s police who turned him over to the local military unit for DWA—Driving While American. The Colonel commanding the brigade he was handed over to said he was going to put him on a helicopter and fly him back up to Erbil, but the guy (whose name I don't remember) said no way, he’s not leaving his bike. So after a couple days trying to figure out what to do, the military had him sign a release form saying their offer to help him leave Iraq was rejected. And then they finally let him go, after which he rode off and headed south toward Baghdad.
While there are obvious dangers traveling as an American in certain parts Iraq where Al-Qaida and other insurgent groups have a presence, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we hear about him having made it to Iran safely with some great stories to tell. I’ve found Iraqis to be an incredibly friendly and giving people, especially to guests, and those individuals who are in the most danger of kidnapping are either rich, politically valuable, or associated with the U.S. occupation. So there is a good chance he made it, especially since he hasn’t popped up yet in an orange jumpsuit in some jihadist video.
Despite assumptions to the contrary, Iraq has a thriving tourism industry, and it’s safer than you think. While most tourists are Shiite pilgrims who visit Islamic shrines in Najaf and Karbala, for Westerners, there are still opportunities to see most of the country.
The most sensible thing to do is probably spend all your time in the Kurdistan Region, which is the only place in Iraq where no American soldiers have died as a result of hostile actions and where Westerners are able to move about freely without any security. And there’s some great historical sites here, like the Erbil Citadel, Shanidar Cave, or the fortress city of Amedi. People are friendly (unlike a lot folks in the Arab parts of Iraq, Kurds love Americans, who’ve been a presence here since Operation Provide Comfort began in 1991). Also, the scenery is beautiful and the food is good (try the sarope).
There are a couple Kurdistan-focused tourism companies you can use, such as Babel Tours, and The Other Iraq Tours, the latter of which is owned by a former U.S. Army Civil Affairs officer who returned to live spending time deployed here in 2003, but doesn't seem to have done anything recently. Or you can just come on your own, but check out the government’s official Kurdistan Tourism page before you do.
If you want see the rest of Iraq, then Hinterland Travel might be what you’re looking for (they also do tours to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Burma). I first read about them in this New York Times article from last year and have considered taking the trip myself.
I’ve traveled to 35 countries at this point and before I croak would like to hit 35 more. I’ll be visiting Jordan and Israel for about 8-10 days each starting in March, and then once I leave my current job in May, plan on traveling through Greece and Turkey and back down into Iraq. I hope to return here in June/early July so I can experience the culture as a tourist, since right now I'm required to take armed security wherever I go and along with the rest of my team am limited to traveling to sites for official business only.
I’ll be sticking to the Kurdistan Region on this trip, but I plan to come back one day and see the rest of Iraq too. While in Baghdad with the military in 2003 I was lucky to see up close much of the city and visit with Baghdadis in their homes and some local restaurants, but once the insurgency heated up in the summer and fall of 2003, it become more difficult. It is my hope than one day I can go back along with my old translator Ali who I continue to stay in touch with, go revisit some of those old neighborhoods I used to patrol in, tour some of the museums, eat Masgouf and drink beer in a nightclub on Abu Nuwas.
(Disclaimer: The U.S. Department of State maintains a travel warning for Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region. You venture out at your own risk. This post is not an endorsement of any of the travel companies listed above.)