Many Iraqis want to travel abroad for business, education, and leisure. Under Saddam Hussein, the ability to travel internationally was limited by the authorities. Now, although such restrictions are no longer in place, Iraqi citizens still face major problems when planning a journey abroad.
Prague, 3 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Mustafa works at a carpet shop in the upscale Mansoor neighborhood of Baghdad. Unlike many Iraqis, Mustafa can afford to go abroad, which he says he planned to do several weeks ago.
"I wanted to see Jordan, maybe see another country -- just for two or three weeks and I'll be back, you know? -- for vacation," he said. "I have some relatives in England. They sent me an invitation to the British Embassy in Jordan. And I told that person who was investigating why I am going to Jordan. I told him that I was to stay in Jordan for about a week, then I'll go to London for about two to three weeks, and I'll be back. And I gave him my guarantee that I'll be back. But he said that I was not allowed to come in [to Jordan]."
Until the fall of the dictatorship, Iraqis had to pay a hefty sum to get official permission to travel abroad. They also had to make their way through arduous security procedures to be issued with a foreign passport.
Today, however, Iraqis who want to travel abroad face different challenges. Those who can afford a foreign trip need to have proper identity papers before leaving the country. Hussein-era passports are still valid, but few Iraqis were ever issued passports due to the cost. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq is not issuing passports but so-called Interim Travel Documents (ITDs).
But getting an ITD is a problem due to the high demand and long lines. And even those who are lucky enough to be issued an ITD face problems on the border with Jordan -- the most popular route for leaving Iraq. That's what happened to Mustafa. "I haven't got a passport yet," he said. "Instead of the passport, there is a travel document. I went [to the authorities and received a] travel document. And I went to Jordan. On the border, they did not allow me to enter Jordan. They didn't even give me a reason. They said: 'Go back. You are not allowed to come in.' I just went back, you know? I was astonished at that time, you know? But what can I do?"
Officially, Jordan does not require visas for Iraqi citizens. But according to eyewitnesses, Iraqis are subjected to special security checks at the border, and many of them are turned back, despite having the proper documents.
"I was not the only one," Mustafa said. "They put me and others -- about 20 to 30 -- in a small van, and they took us to the Iraqi [side of the] border, which is very close, and told us we were not allowed to come in. And they stamped on our travel documents 'No Entry.' Some drivers -- they were not allowed to come in [to Jordan], too. I don't know why. So we went back [to Baghdad] with the drivers."
Mustafa paid about $25 to get back to Baghdad, but he says it wasn't the cost that bothered him, or the danger of getting robbed on the highway. He says it was his dignity that suffered. He says he still hopes to visit his relatives in England. But next time, Mustafa said he hopes to make the journey carrying, not an ITD, but a passport -- "a decent passport like a decent person" -- perhaps after sovereignty is handed over to Iraqis on 1 July.
Demya Haddad is a charge d'affaires at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad. He says a lot of Iraqis want to travel to Jordan. Some of them, like Mustafa, want to get to Amman to visit embassies to obtain visas for third countries, since many nations are still in the process of setting up embassies in Baghdad.
Haddad says that to get to his country from Iraq is rather simple. "Iraqis are admitted into Jordan without visas," he said. "So, they can travel to Jordan to do all sorts of businesses -- those who go to the hospitals, those who go for recreation, those who go to visit other embassies to get visas. They need a travel document issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority -- valid, of course. Or they need a valid Iraqi passport."
Haddad says he doesn't know how many Iraqis cross the border into Jordan, but he says Jordanian authorities are concerned by the number of forged travel documents used to do so. "Actually, we were faced with many forged travel documents. These newly issued travel documents, they don't have special kind of features which protect them from being forged," he said. "We have captured many forged documents here at the embassy and also at the border. That makes it a little bit sensitive. Those who have genuine travel documents can travel into Jordan. I think no country will allow anyone with forged documents to enter through their borders."
Mustafa confirmed that there is an underground business in fake travel documents. "We've heard about the fake passports [and travel documents]. You know, there are some people making colored photocopies of passports," he said. "But it's forged! People get afraid of using it. We hear that it costs about $200, I think."
Dana Basova worked in Iraq as a representative of the Czech Foreign Ministry within the Coalition Provisional Authority and helped Iraqis trying to study abroad. She says the major problem was securing internationally recognized travel documents for the students because many of them didn't have passports from the old regime. "The main problem of this new travel document [ITD] is that it is not yet recognized by the majority of countries," she said. "That actually means that it is not quite valid for those Iraqis. Naturally, they also need visas. You can imagine that the willingness of many countries to render visas to the Iraqis or even to cancel a visa regime is quite low. I can say from my own experience that Iraqi students who got scholarships in the Czech Republic had to wait for a while in Iraq until the Czech Republic recognized this document."
The United States, Great Britain, and the Czech Republic are among the few nations to currently recognize ITDs as valid travel documents. Basova says the ITDs have helped to resolve the problem of Iraqis traveling abroad, but she says a real solution will come only when Iraqi authorities begin issuing proper passports and when consular services are rendered in Baghdad by those countries that require visas from Iraqi citizens.