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Iraq Sees First Western Tour Group Since Saddam's Fall

Nuri al-Maliki inspects antiquities in the reopened National Museum in Baghdad.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq has received its first group of Western tourists since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry said.

The group of eight holidaymakers -- five Britons, two Americans, and a Canadian -- arrived on March 8 and toured Iraq's landmark historic sites, including the Biblical city of Babylon, fabled home to the Hanging Gardens.

Their three-week trip was organized by a British adventure-tour operator, ministry spokesman Abd al-Zahra al-Telagani said, but he declined to name the company.

"This is the first group since the regime's fall," he said. "We expect these tourists will convey a positive message to their citizens back home that the situation in Iraq is good."

Their itinerary included the Castle of Irbil -- a relic of the medieval Ottoman empire in Iraq's northern Kurdish region -- as well as the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, in Mosul, a dangerous city still crawling with Sunni Arab insurgents.

They visited the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites of Shi'ite Islam, whose devastation in a bomb attack in 2006 unleashed a wave of sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.

In the south, the tourists saw the holy Shi'ite shrines of Karbala and Najaf, which are already popular with religious pilgrims from Iran, and the southern oil-hub Basra.

They will finish up this weekend with a visit to the Iraqi National Museum. The building was reopened last month for the first time since looters pillaged it after the U.S.-led invasion.

Iraq, part of a region known as the cradle of civilization, has countless archaeological and religious sites, but decades of war have shut the doors to foreign tourist groups.