Is Iraqi Kurdistan safe?
This is, of course, the most commonly asked question by any traveler that is considering a visit to this region. It’s also the most common question that every family member, friend, colleague and acquaintance of any traveler considering a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan will ask.
Fair enough. Iraq is technically a war zone and much of the country is simply too dangerous for foreigners to visit. However, when it comes to Iraqi Kurdistan, it really is a different story.
Without even asking, chances are that the reason Iraq doesn’t end up on many traveler’s itineraries is because of a strong sense of fear that bodily harm or even death is a very real possibility for any foreign visitor to this region.
However, as long as you stay inside the area controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (which is clearly marked and heavily guarded by Kurdish Security Forces), and don’t stray into cities such as Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit and Baghdad to the south, you probably won’t be spending too much time worrying about your safety in Kurdistan.
With that said, traveling to this region is not exactly an automatic exemption from danger given the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan does suffer from continued conflict with Turkey to the north and Iran to the east as well as having to protect it’s borders from the highly unstable regions of Iraq to the south. But for the most part, life in this region is quite peaceful and more than safe for travelers.
During my own travels to this region, at no time have I felt threatened and at no time have I witnessed anything that would lead me to an urgent sense of fear.
Of course, despite that statement, traveling to Iraq is still not an adventure for everyone as everybody’s perception of danger is completely different. For experienced travelers, the sight of trucks rolling through the streets with balaclava-clad soldiers manning heavy machine guns or heavily armed soldiers questioning your presence at dozens of roadblocks and security checkpoints might not be much of a big deal. However, for less experienced travelers, the above, which you will definitely encounter in Iraqi Kurdistan, might be terrifying enough to convince you not to visit this area.
For a closer look at some of the potential dangers (at least the perceived dangers) involved with traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan, keep reading below…
The chance of a foreign traveler being targeted for violence in Iraqi Kurdistan is extremely low. The Kurdish people are incredibly fond of foreigners, especially those from countries that supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Kurds benefited immensely during Bush’s eight year presidency, as the take down of Saddam led to a safer, freer and more autonomous Kurdistan. So there’s a very low chance that foreigners would be targeted by Kurds for any violence. And while it is feasible that non-Kurdish Iraqis could enter Kurdistan with the intention of harming foreign travelers, it would be quite a challenge for such a person to successfully pass through the dozens of checkpoints in the region. In addition, there just aren’t that many foreigners traveling here either.
Violent incidents that are not targeted at foreign visitors certainly do take place despite the relative safety in Kurdistan. In the past couple of years alone, there has been a car bombing in Erbil, bombings from the Turkish army in the northern mountains, bombings carried out by Iran and an attempt by one man to drive a bomb-laden car through a checkpoint on the outskirts of Erbil (the driver was promptly shot by soldiers).
So yes, being caught up in random violence is always a possibility in Iraqi Kurdistan, but probably not much more of a possibility than getting caught up in violence in your home country. While it wouldn’t be wise to classify this region as completely safe, it’s almost a certainty that you will find yourself surprised at how laid-back, ordinary and yes, seemingly safe, life really is in these parts.
However, to switch sides once again, it is important to understand that the situation could change quickly. As a result, it is always best to check the current situation immediately before your trip is scheduled to begin in order to make sure that there are no real safety concerns at that time.
GENERAL SAFETY CONCERNS
Such typical travel concerns as pickpockets, scams and theft are not common at all in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds are extremely honest people and you’ll often witness remarkable acts of trust. For example, in every town there are money changers who pile thousands of US Dollars, Euros, Iraqi Dinars and other currencies on a small, unprotected table on the footpath. And I was repeatedly shocked at how often these money changers would leave their table unattended (with all the money just sitting there) in order to go grab some food or a cup of tea, even if it was located on a busy street.
Due to the insistence of locals, I often find myself leaving my backpack or luggage unattended in hotel lobbies, shared taxi stations and even on the side of the road while off doing something else. Nobody ever steals anything. While I can’t say that theft would never happen here, it’s not something a traveler needs to be overly worried about.
To some, after reading the above, it may seem that the region is quite safe, just as it has to many travelers, and yet others may still feel that the potential danger is not worth the risk at all.
I feel that it’s important to repeat that this is still Iraq and in the end, it is a war zone. And that fact alone is not one to be taken lightly.