Mention “Iraq” to anyone who reads the newspaper regularly and they’ll probably get a troubled look on their faces. It feels like at least once a week or so, I see a headline about explosions ripping through Iraqi cities as sectarian violence flares. The perceived danger alone is why people give me this strange look when I tell them I traveled in Iraq.
Meet Iraqi Kurdistan
Let’s get one thing clear real quick. Iraq is really two countries, one called Iraq, the other, Iraqi Kurdistan. Ok, sure, technically, Kurdistan is part of Iraq, though you’d never know it traveling there. Officially called the “Kurdish Autonomous Region,” they’ve taken self-governance to the next level, with their own independent military and immigration that is totally separate from the central Iraqi government.
This means that the security situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is radically different than it is in “Arab” (Southern) Iraq. And all of those bombings you read about constantly are actually in Southern Iraq, not within the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan.
It’s almost amazing in some regards, as there are moments in Kurdistan where you are no more than 80 or so km (50 miles) from dangerous hotspots like Kirkuk or Mosul but there’s in effect a border between the two. In fact, sitting around enjoying the calm of Erbil’s citadel or Dohuk’s amusement park, you’d never realize that you are an hour or so from a couple of the most dangerous cities on Earth…
Is Traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan Safe?
So is traveling in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region safe? Well, no place is 100% safe. I mean, I could get mugged walking down the streets of NYC (heck a guy was murdered in Greenwich Village recently just for being gay). I happen to be of the opinion that bad things can happen anywhere and there isn’t much you can do stop them so why should you worry?
But let me emphasize that I never once felt unsafe or even pause while I was traveling in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.
That’s not to say that nothing has ever happened. Suicide bombings did rock Iraqi Kurdistan as the war raged in the south following the 2003 U.S. invasion, though they have largely calmed down since 2007. And car bombings, though incredibly rare, have been known to happen, most recently in March 2013, when a magnetic bomb was stuck to an unsuspecting car driven by a Kurdish general.
When things do happen, they tend to be very targeted. Nobody was killed in that car bombing, which only injured the driver. The chances of something happening, particularly in areas where tourists visit, are pretty slim. Security is everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan and I can’t even count the number of checkpoint I went through, all staffed by heavily armed Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers (which literally means “those who face death”). But things do occasionally slip through, like the car bomb.
I would say that by far the biggest danger to your personal safety is the reckless way in which people drive (I’ve written my own little “driving guide” to Iraq based on my experiences with a rental car there which is coming down the pipeline soon!). That, and I have to agree with Wandering Earl’s notion that starvation may be the biggest risk from his visit in 2010, as I unfortunately found the food to be pretty lackluster, even though I eat meat (which he doesn’t).
What You Can Do to Keep Yourself Safe
Here are a couple of other things you can do to help keep yourself safe. When traveling between Dohuk and Erbil, the fast way to go is via the outskirts of Mosul, which may not be the safest decision you could make. When I did that route, I took a standard share taxi and it took a different route, which made me feel much safer (it left from an office across from the market in Dohuk).
And when traveling between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, most share taxis travel via the outskirts of Kirkuk, which, again, puts you at a higher risk of encountering violence. I solved this by taking a share taxi from Sulaymaniyah to Koya to check out the really cool mudbrick houses (pictured below), before catching another share taxi back to Erbil.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to keep yourself aware of what’s going on around you. Trust your own gut instincts and what local people tell you. The Kurds are very honest people and I never once felt that anyone had an ulterior motive like they do in Egypt or was out to rip me off or steal from me. And stay on top of current events. Like anywhere in the world, the situation can change very quickly.
If you are a traveler with a sense of adventure…one who is comfortable finding your own way around an undeveloped land with no tourism infrastructure, then taking the chance to travel in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Region can be an amazingly rewarding experience. A chance to witness nation building first hand and get to know the most hospitable people I’ve ever experienced.
Safe travels out there!
Read More About My Adventure in Iraq
- So, What’s it Like to Travel in Iraq?
- Meet Kurdistan: The Other Iraq
- How to Cross From Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan by Bus
- A Night at an Amusement Park in Iraq (With Video!)
- Inside Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors
- Photo Essay: Inside 7,000 Years of History at Erbil Citadel
- Amadiya: A Charming Paradise in Iraqi Kurdistan
- Road Trip Iraq: Kurdistan’s GORGEOUS Hamilton Road
- How to Drive in Iraq