Amazing Iraq is one of the oldest places in the world and the cradle of civilization according to many historians. The first cities in what is now Iraq were built in 10,000 BCE as part of the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia.
Even those who are not history and archeology lovers will be awed by the ancient Mesopotamian ruins gracing Iraq, from the Great Ziggurat of Ur to the Citadel of Erbil, which has layers from all of Iraq’s different eras of history.
Other attractions include the laid-back seaside city of Basra, the Parthian temples of Hatra, and the unique landscapes of the Iraqi marshes.
People that venture to Iraq are often awed by the hospitality and resilience of local people as well as the cuisine. Iraq certainly has many beautiful sites, but many people are afraid to visit due to security concerns.
Safety is a major issue whenever you plan a trip abroad, but especially to a place such as Iraq which has had a tumultuous recent history.
Before you head out to Iraq, it’s important to think about your safety. But don’t worry — our travel experts put together this detailed guide to help you evaluate if it is safe to visit or not. Let us be your guide!
Is Iraq Safe to Visit?
No. Unfortunately, Iraq is not safe to visit at all due to the fragile security situation. The risk of terrorist attacks, armed clashes, and even military activity from Iraq’s neighboring countries are just too high.
The security vacuum in the country has also created the perfect environment for crime to flourish, often affecting foreigners. Most countries advise their citizens not to visit Iraq.
For example, the United States has Iraq under a “Level Four: Do Not Travel” advisory, the strictest possible advisory level (it even advises prospective travelers to write a will before visiting).
The Irish government also advises its citizens not to travel to Iraq. Irish citizens who are in Iraq should make plans to visit immediately, and those that have to be there for business should make private security arrangements.
Common problems that countries warn about in their travel advisories for Iraq include:
- Civil unrest
- Armed clashes
- Organized crime
- Armed robbery
The list is certainly imposing, and the crimes you might encounter in Iraq are far more serious than petty theft. Foreigners in Iraq have been the victims of violent crimes before and some have even lost their lives.
Iraq’s recent history has unfortunately been unkind to the country and its population. The dictator Saddam Hussein involved the country in several wars, including the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and the Gulf War in 1991.
However, the situation really deteriorated following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the near-decade-long war.
That war formally ended in 2011, but peace, if it happened at all, was short-lived: in 2014, the terrorist group ISIS swept through Iraq, displacing thousands of people, decimating cities such as Mosul, and committing genocide against minority groups such as the Yazidis.
The Iraqi government managed to retake most territory that ISIS captured, but the scars of war are still visible and Iraq’s security situation is far from stable.
Terrorist groups such as ISIS are still powerful, although they no longer formally control cities. Civil unrest is common and the government often violently represses opposition activists.
Certain regions of Iraq are safer than others. For example, the UK government allows for essential travel to parts of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq, or the KRI, is an autonomous region of Iraq for the Kurdish minority.
In recent years, it was one of the safer parts of Iraq due to its more peaceful security situation. Kurdistan managed to repel the ISIS invasion and doesn’t have a history of sectarian violence.
However, in recent years, Kurdistan has also become more dangerous to visit. This is unfortunately the fault of Iraq’s neighbors.
In July 2022, the popular Kurdish resort of Dohuk was bombed and the Turkish government is believed to be behind it, despite official denials. In September 2022, the Iranian government launched drone strikes against the Kurdish town of Koya which also killed civilians.
Both governments are heavily repressive against their domestic Kurdish population and attack the Kurdistan Region of Iraq believing that it serves as a base for domestic Kurdish opposition.
Unfortunately, this means that Iraqi Kurdistan is no longer as safe as it once was. Iraq is not a safe country to visit or live in. Many Iraqis struggle with the dangerous security situation every day, and visiting right now may not be the best idea.
Crime in Iraq
Amid all the concerns about armed violence and terrorism, crime might be the last thing on your mind in Iraq. However, crime, especially violent crime, is also a risk you should be aware of when you visit the country.
It is difficult to find accurate crime statistics for Iraq as the government understandably has its hands full with other jobs besides collecting statistics.
The government also doesn’t have complete control over some parts of its territory, making it difficult to have statistics for every region. The last year for which the World Bank has homicide data for Iraq is 2013.
Back then, the murder rate was a whopping 10 incidents per 100,000 people, which is far above the global average. In the years since, the murder rate may have gone down, but not by much.
The rates of other violent crimes are similarly high. The kidnapping rate in 2014 was 3.7 cases per 100,000 people and steadily increasing (anecdotal data shows that it is much higher now). The assault rate is 83.2 cases per 100,000 people.
Criminal groups such as terrorist organizations and crime syndicates are often behind crime in Iraq. According to the Organized Crime Index, Iraq has the 8th worst organized crime index in the world.
Criminal groups are behind crimes such as human smuggling, arms trafficking, oil trafficking, methamphetamine trafficking including selling to children, and extortion.
Criminals often target foreigners because they know they are more lucrative targets than Iraqis. Mafia groups will target foreigners for crimes such as kidnapping and armed robbery.
One of the most common crimes affecting tourists in Iraq is kidnapping. Criminal groups and terrorist organizations often kidnap foreigners in exchange for ransom.
Kidnapping is one of the primary risks that the New Zealand government warns about in its official travel advisory for Iraq.
The advisory explains that militant groups often capture foreigners not just for ransom, but also for ideological reasons and to make a statement politically. The Australian government also warns about the risk of kidnapping in Iraq.
People with high-profile jobs are at higher risk of kidnapping. These include researchers, journalists, NGO workers, and people coming to work in Iraq’s oil industry.
However, all foreigners are at risk of kidnapping. When thinking about the risk of kidnapping, remember that most governments have laws against paying ransoms to avoid encouraging terrorist kidnapping.
If you do get kidnapped, it is unlikely that your home government will be able to help you. Hostages have been killed in the past if the ransom payment was not made fast enough.
The best way to avoid being the victim of a kidnapping is to not go to Iraq at all. If you do go, take steps to minimize your risk.
Avoid traveling or moving around at night as that is when the risk of kidnapping is elevated. Consider hiring private security, especially if your reasons for visiting make you more vulnerable to kidnapping.
Violent terrorist attacks are still common in Iraq and affect foreigners as well as locals. The Canadian government warns about the threat of terrorism in Iraq as deadly attacks still occur weekly.
Previous targets have included residential areas, government buildings, places of worship and religious festivals, airports, and places with plenty of people.
Terrorist activity in Iraq often targets civilians. Militants use methods that have high fatality rates, such as mortar attacks, car bombs, and vehicle ambushes. The UK government also warns about the risk of terrorism in Iraq.
Daesh or ISIS is still the primary actor, but there are other terrorist groups present in the country. Attacks are most common in Baghdad, Nineveh, Anbar and Kirkuk provinces, but they have occurred everywhere in the country.
Foreigners have been caught up in mass terrorist attacks in the past. Terrorist groups also target foreigners specifically by attacking places where international citizens tend to congregate.
Some militants organize individual attacks on foreigners by targeting their vehicles in roadside ambushes and kidnapping foreign citizens. There is no way to completely avoid a terrorist attack (besides not going to Iraq at all).
If you are in the country, try to avoid crowded public places as they are often targeted by terrorists. Religious festivals such as the Karbala pilgrimage are also targets. Monitor local news and alerts and follow directions by local authorities.
Avoiding Bad Areas
Most of Iraq is dangerous to visit, but some parts are more dangerous than others. Avoid rural areas, especially in the desert, as those are becoming hideouts for the remaining terrorist groups.
Don’t travel on remote roads crossing the desert, especially not at night. The city of Samarra is controlled by a Shia militia that is often unfriendly to foreigners.
Things to Consider
If you decide to go to Iraq despite the risks, here are some additional tips:
- Protests are common, especially in the city of Basra. The government often meets those with repression, so avoid large gatherings as the government won’t look kindly on your presence there as a foreigner.
- If you’re traveling through the country, you will encounter checkpoints. Make sure that you have your passport on you at all times.
- Malaria is common in some parts of Iraq and medical treatment in the country is inadequate. Take antimalarial medications with you if you are traveling to Basra and other southern regions.
- Scams are common. Be careful if someone approaches you in person or online claiming to be a government representative, embassy representative, or business partner with a lucrative potential trade offer, as they are often trying to scam foreigners of their money.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions other travelers to Iraq asked:
What is the safest city in Iraq to visit?
The safest bigger city to visit in Iraq is probably Erbil, and this city in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a moderately big expat population. Any city in the Kurdistan region is one of the safer ones in Iraq.
What not to do when visiting Iraq?
When visiting Iraq, don’t do things that will endanger you such as traveling alone at night and advertising the fact that you are a foreigner.
Don’t do things that will offend the sensibilities of locals such as telling dirty jokes, insulting Islam, or bringing up the war in an insensitive context.
Is it safe to drive in Iraq?
Driving in Iraq is not safe at all. Terrorists often wait by the road to ambush drivers, especially vehicles they know contain foreigners. Plus, road conditions are unsafe especially outside of major cities and fatal car accidents are common.
How safe is Baghdad right now?
Baghdad right now is probably the safest it has been in years — but that isn’t saying much. There is still an ongoing threat of terrorist attacks as well as frequent protests and civil unrest. Street crime is also increasing.
Is there still a war in Iraq?
Technically, the war in Iraq is over as both the US formally withdrew and ISIS was defeated. However, ISIS still maintains power in some rural areas and there is an ongoing insurgency.
So, Is Iraq Safe to Visit?
Tragically for the Iraqi people, Iraq is still not a safe country. If you do not have to visit, there is no reason for you to do so. Although Iraq has many beautiful attractions, the risk of terrorism, kidnapping, and other violent crimes is too high.
While we suggest avoiding this country, the good news is that there are countless other countries that offer rich history and picturesque sights that are safe to visit. Find your adventure by clicking here today!