“I am going to Iraq,” I told my wife. “Why? To die?” she asked. “No. Out of love: love for my beloved Imam Husayn. I miss him. My heart aches for his presence.” “What does the State Department say?” “To make my will,” I responded. “They have issued a Level 4 Travel Advisory: it does not get higher than that.” It reads:
Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism and armed conflict.
U.S. citizens in Iraq are at high risk for violence and kidnapping. Numerous terrorist and insurgent groups are active in Iraq and regularly attack both Iraqi security forces and civilians. Anti-U.S. sectarian militias may also threaten U.S. citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq. Attacks by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) occur frequently in many areas of the country, including Baghdad.
The U.S. government’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iraq is extremely limited…
If you decide to travel to Iraq:
- Visit our website for Travel to High-Risk Areas.
- Draft a will and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries and/or power of attorney.
- Discuss a plan with loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, non-liquid assets (collections, artwork, etc.), funeral wishes, etc.
- Share important documents, login information, and points of contact with loved ones so that they can manage your affairs if you are unable to return as planned to the United States. Find a suggested list of such documents here.
- Establish your own personal security plan in coordination with your employer or host organization, or consider consulting with a professional security organization…
According to the US Department of State, all of Iraq is painted red indicating that traveling to any part of the country is extremely dangerous.
And so, I sought a second opinion, that of the country of my birth, my beloved Canada, to see what its government had to say. It was no more reassuring: “Iraq – AVOID ALL TRAVEL.” It was the highest warning level:
Avoid all travel to Iraq, including the areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), due to a very volatile, dangerous and unpredictable security situation. If you are in Iraq, consider departing by commercial means if it is safe to do so.
In short, don’t go, and, if for some insane reason you happen to be in Iraq, get the hell out as soon as you can if it is safe to do so. But what the Australians? I wondered. Perhaps they were more level-headed. Apparently not. The assessment of the Australian government was the same:
Do not travel to Iraq because of the extremely volatile and dangerous security situation. Armed conflict, air strikes, kidnappings and terrorist attacks are common. If you’re in Iraq, including the Kurdish region, depart immediately.
- Armed groups conduct large-scale, coordinated attacks against the Government of Iraq and civilians. Thousands of people have been killed and injured in these attacks throughout Iraq.
- There is a very high threat of kidnapping. Information indicates that terrorists may be planning to kidnap expatriate staff working in Iraq, including journalists and humanitarian workers.
- Attacks by terrorists occur frequently and without warning.
- Armed opposition groups are active in many parts of Iraq, including in the Kurdish region. The situation could deteriorate further with little warning.
- If you decide to remain in Iraq despite our advice, seek professional security advice, adopt effective personal security measures and monitor media and other sources for information on possible new safety and security risks.
But what about the Brits, I figured, perhaps their intelligence services have a different assessment of the situation on the ground. And they did. It advised against all travel to most of central, western, eastern, and north-western Iraq. However, advised against all but essential travel to the Kurdistan region and the Shiite regions in the south. The British government warned that:
there is still a risk of terrorist attacks and kidnap across the country. You should remain vigilant and monitor media reports…
The security situation throughout Iraq remains uncertain, and could deteriorate quickly. You should monitor media reporting and make sure you have robust contingency plans in place.
Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Iraq. There’s also a high kidnap threat. While attacks can take place at any time, there’s a heightened threat during religious or public holidays
Surely, I could find some source that would assuage the fears of my wife. Why not Wikipedia? A reliable source if there ever was one. According to WikiTravel:
Travel to Mosul, Al-Qaim, Hawijah etc. is STRONGLY DISCOURAGED. Traveling to areas like Basra, Najaf, Karbala, and the majority of Kurdistan is safe. The north-east provinces which comprise Iraqi Kurdistan can be considered safe for foreigners, the margins for error are small and accuracy is limited.
If it is necessary to visit this country, then remain cautious at all times, and consult your embassy before you leave.
Iraq has seen religious and sectarian warfare for over a decade because of the invasion, so having certain opinions or affiliations in the “wrong” area can be deadly. As such, avoid any religious or political discussions.
The bottom line is: Do your research and be very careful.
So, there it was, I thought semi-cynically. It was “safe” to visit Najaf and Karbala. After all, I had been there before, except, of course, I had twenty-million pilgrims to act as a buffer. Schools of fish protect from predation. This time, however, I would be alone, and without a recommended security detail.
“You are going there to die,” stated my wife. “No. However, there is no place where I would prefer to die.” “Make your will,” she said, “and arrange for your remains to be repatriated.” “Millions of people from around the world have made arrangements to be buried in the Valley of Peace, the largest cemetery in the world, located outside of Najaf, to be in the presence of the holy Imams, and in proximity of the place from where Imam Mahdi will rise,” I explained. “If I die in the holy land, I am to be buried in the holy land.”
“How will our children visit your grave?” she asked. “They can visit me when they visit the Imams,” I explained. “I see that you have your heart set on the holy land,” my wife conceded, “If you feel you must go, then go. Your entire demeanor changed the moment you were invited to Karbala. Go with God.” And so, I went, knowing full well that I could die, not at the hands of some terrorist, but dissolving into the divine upon touching the tomb of Imam Husayn. I spent an entire week in Iraq, spending time in Najaf al-Ashraf, Karbala, Baghdad, and Kazimayn, and traveling the country by car, as any ordinary person, with no security detail of any sort, just the company of an Iraqi or two.
At no point during the trip did I feel unsafe, even when traveling the desert roads at night between Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad. There were check-points aplenty, through which we were mostly waived through, without any verifications of any kind: only at sensitive spots was our vehicle inspected by radar beams and dog-sniffing does, and only on a few occasions were we required to get out of our vehicle so that it could be inspected. Yes, we were gently patted down time and again as we approached sacred sites; however, this provided a sense of reassurance, care, and concern, as opposed to intimidation of any kind.
Although one would assume that a Métis French Canadian, who speaks Classical Arabic, would stand out and be subject to more stringent scrutiny, I was never once asked for my papers, never once had my passport examined, never once asked who I was, what I was doing, and where I was going. Sure, I was in the company of some pretty powerful people: the office of Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Sa‘id al-Hakim, which carried great weight, respect, and reverence; however, even when I spent the night on the town in Baghdad, with a middle-class computer networker, I had no problem of any kind.
Najaf al-Ashraf was perfectly safe. Karbala was perfectly safe. Both cities, which form the sacred center of Shi‘ism, had been safe for years. No casualties during Arbaeen of 2018. No casualties during Arbaeen of 2017. Some casualties during Arbaeen of 2016. Baghdad, was admittedly, dangerous until relatively recently. However, thanks to the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Popular Mobilization Forces, made up of dozens of Shiite militias, the city has been cleared of Takfiri terrorists.
The city of Baghdad was not under siege. It was vibrant, buzzling, and alive with activity and energy. I walked through popular parts, at night, without fear, in the company of locals, mind you. I passed through middle-class neighborhoods and ate and had coffee in upper-class hip and happing joints. No fear whatsoever. I have traveled the world and felt safer in Baghdad than I do in parts of Chicago and Detroit.
Would I advise all other travelers to visit Iraq? Absolutely not. Not if they are on their own. Not if they are not proficient in Arabic. Not if they stand out. However, the southern, Shiite, parts of the country are perfectly safe for Shiite Muslim pilgrims. The Kurdistan region is also relatively safe for most travelers. So long as one travels with locals or forms part of an organized tour, southern Iraq and the Kurdistan region should be relatively safe.
The only unpleasantness that I experienced was being robbed of $770 USD, which was surreptitiously taken from my wallet as I passed through security at the Najaf International Airport. Iraq, after all, is still the Third World, and one should always remain wary. Despite being robbed, I survived Iraq unscathed, wondering why the Western world insists on portraying Iraq as one of the most dangerous places in the world. It may have been. It continues to be in certain parts. However, much of the country is now relatively secure. Consequently, the assessment made by Western governments does not accurately reflect the situation on the ground.
How long the country will remain relatively secure remains uncertain. The Iraqi government suffers from severe organizational problems. This weakness can transform it into a failed state. And, like it or not, this weakness encourages corruption. What is more, it prevents the development of the country, the impedes the expansion of its essential infrastructure, to such a point that people suffer from a lack or limited amount of public services, including electricity, waste removal, adequate education, proper economic management, and job creation.
Over and over again, Iraqis, from all walks of life expressed their deep discontent with their government. “We should line up all the politicians and shoot them all,” stated one Iraqi. “Havn’t you killed enough people like it is?” I asked. “When you have a bad tree, it will just keep giving you bad fruit,” he rationalized, “We need to cut down the bad trees and plant new ones.” “I fear you will only get some more bad trees,” I told the man, fearing that the country will, eventually, succumb to civil war and savagery. The problem with Iraq is part of its people: disorganized, undisciplined, divided, indolent, retrograde, sectarian, misogynistic, intolerant, violent, excitable, inflammable, and more inclined to kill than to converse.
With the exception of religious gems, the hearts of some Iraqis are made of stone. Had they been made of sponges, they could have better absorbed the message of Islam. Some kind-hearted and constructive Iraqis stay; however, the people who could help build a better future, often tend to flee to the Western world. If all the good Iraqis leave the country, what will be left? And unless all Iraqis improve themselves, how can the nation rise up from its ashes? Ultimately, there is little that can be done and the onus is on the Iraqi people to seize their destiny, something that only they can do, for as the Glorious Qur’an states in no uncertain terms: “Verily, Allah will not change the condition of the people, until they change what’s in themselves” (13:11).
“You are a very brave man,” and Iraqi told me, “to leave the safest country in the world, the United States, to come to what is depicted as the most dangerous country in the world.” As much as the corporate media portrays Iraq a hell on earth, I found a spiritual heaven. As much as the corporate media portrays Iraq as a place of war, it is a place where I found profound inner peace. The 2005 Constitution of Iraq is a brilliant societal blue-print. I pray the Iraqis will put all of its principles into practice and make it a reality. God bless Iraq. God bless the Iraqis. I pray for a free, fully-functioning, prosperous, and democratic Iraq.
The author facing imminent danger in Iraq.
Dr. John Andrew Morrow is a Hispanist and Islamologist. He is the author of a wide body of works, including The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World which has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Indonesian. His websites include www.covenantsoftheprophet.com and www.johnandrewmorrow.com