638 Iraqi relics found in closet

The Iraqi National Museum found 638 artifacts that had been missing for two years. Once returned by the U.S. government, the relics were turned over to the office of the prime minster in Iraq, which is where they were found, according to an announcement over the weekend. They were in a closet in the prime minister’s office.

Following the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, approximately 15,000 relics fell victim to looting.

According to Qahtan al-Jibouri, the minister of tourism and antiquities for Iraq, “We found these artifacts in one of the storerooms of the prime minister’s office along with some kitchen appliances.”

[photo by Brian Sayler via Flickr]

Coming attractions: Iraq

Could Iraq be the next big adventure travel destination? One hardy tour company and their clients are saying, “Why not?”

There’s no shortage of things to see. Just as Ethiopia is the cradle of humanity, Iraq is the cradle of civilization. Cities like Ur and Babylon had palaces and libraries when my European ancestors were painting themselves blue and dancing around stone circles. Besides Iraq’s obvious historical interest, visitors can enjoy the novelty of being in a country that we so often see on the news but so few of us have experienced in real life.

OK, but. . .

Yes, Iraq’s a rough place. The U.S. State Department strongly advises against going there. It’s not like Iran or Colombia, where you can simply get a visa, fly in, and wander around freely and safely. Iraq is definitely an organized tour sort of country. An organized tour with armed guards.

I spoke with Geoff Hann, owner of Hinterland Travel, a UK company that offers one of the only ways to go to Iraq without a gun or a government contract in your hand. He’s been leading tours to the country since 1970, with a few breaks during the recent wars. He led a Post Iraq War tour in October 2003 but then the security situation deteriorated and he wasn’t able to get back until November 2008. This year he’s run four tours and has more planned for next year.

“Individual Tourism is not yet allowed due to security issues so we have group departures and the visas are arranged accordingly through the Ministry of Tourism,” Hann said.

Hinterland Travel’s tours encompass a lot of the country. Their shortest tour is nine days and covers sights in Baghdad, Samarra, Erbil, Nimrud, Ctesiphon (shown here), Babylon, Najaf, and more. The tour costs 1,600 pounds ($2,600) and includes all in-country expenses such as hotels, transport, security, and an English-speaking guide. Some tours even visit one of Saddam’s old palaces.

Hann warns travelers to be flexible because the situation in the country is very fluid and the itinerary can and probably will change. He says the locals are very friendly and welcoming to international visitors. I’ve never been to Iraq, but I’ve experienced warm hospitality in Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Iran, so there’s no reason to think the average Iraqi would be any different.

Yes, but what about security?”We have one or two security men with us and they can call up escorts at any time and sometimes we use this facility,” Hann said. “If I have a special group who want extra security or if the numbers are greater than our normal tours then we will have more security with us. But the quiet and anonymous approach will always be the best security.”

The guards and local officials get understandably jittery if people go off on their own, so unfortunately there’s none of the wandering through the souk or playing backgammon in the neighborhood tea shop that I enjoyed so much in my own trips through the Middle East. Hann is optimistic that this will change.

While there’s only a trickle of tourists from the West, Iraq had almost a million pilgrims in 2008, and the number of European tourists has doubled in 2009, so Iraq is not unaccustomed to taking care of travelers. There are more than 750 functioning hotels, although Hann advises that many have been damaged and travelers will have to rough it sometimes.

Travel in Iraq would be a rewarding experience. You’d get a fascinating and exciting holiday and rack up lots of cool points with your friends. You’d also be helping people who desperately need and deserve it. Tourism brings money, money builds industry, and stability is usually quick to follow. If tourists start coming back from Iraq saying how much fun they had, the tourism industry will grow. The local economy will improve, hotels and local services will get repaired, encouraging more tourism, and maybe the warring factions will realize a little stability and profit isn’t so bad after all.

Is that too much to hope for? Are tourists better nation builders than soldiers? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

Get There

Airline service to Iraq changes regularly but it is possible to book a flight. There are flights into Baghdad from various cities such as Istanbul and Damascus through a few travel companies such as IKB.

Hann says his company gives advice on flights and that with a group tour you can get visas on arrival, even if you’re American.

“We have Americans booking on all our departures. There’s no problem for Americans for our visa-on-arrival groups. We submit our group names and details and nationality does not matter,” he says.

So going to Iraq is possible, and no more expensive than a lot of guided adventure tours. But if you don’t have the money or guts to go on this tour, you can always have a staycation and check out the treasures of the Iraqi museum on Google!

Kuwaiti airline still pushing for $1.3b

The Iraqi government is going to write a $300 million check to Kuwait Airways. So, the airline believes there’s only another $1 billion to go. The cash is related to damages caused by Saddam Hussein‘s 1990 invasion of its wealthy neighbor.

A spokesman for the Iraq Cabinet, Ali al-Dabbagh says that the approved settlement was “final and comprehensive.” The country’s Justice Ministry will make sure the payments are sent to Kuwait Airways.

Where there are two sides, of course, there are two opinions. Kuwait Airways has stated that the settlement is definitely not final. There’s another billion dollars at play, not to mention nearly two decades of accumulated interest.

It’s a good thing the Iraqi government is nice and stable … and that there isn’t a war to get in the way of these payments …

Maybe you can help Iraq pay its tab to Kuwait Airways. Take a trip to Baghdad, and put some money into the local economy!

[Via USA Today]

[Thanks, Brian Sayler, for the galleries and photo of Saddam’s palace above and the gallery below]

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No Fly List Exposed

CBSAnother CBS News piece I missed for who knows what reason, but they’ve got a pretty good summary of what went down in the program. In a very interesting episode of 60 Minutes, correspondent Steve Kroft goes over the very sloppy and inaccurate No Fly government list that can detain fliers for hours and create a ton of unnecessary hassle for the innocent or unlikely terrorist. For starters the “No Fly” list is part of a secret government database compiled after 9/11 to keep all the bad frequent fliers from flying so frequently or at all. In all seriousness, it is supposed to prevent suspected terrorists from boarding planes, but after managing to obtain a copy of the extra, extra secret list – 60 Minutes uncovers and exposes some major flaws. For instance 14 of the 19 9/11 hijackers who have been dead for five years are still on the list. Shocking? Not to some… When Kroft questioned Donna Bucella, who has run the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center since 2003, her response was:

“Well, just because a person has died doesn’t necessarily mean their identity has died. People sometimes carry the identity of those who have died.”

Okay, Bucella has a point with that one, but a good one? I don’t think so – what moron would assume the identity of a known terrorist? Moving along, also found on the list is Saddam Hussein, convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, Francois Genoud (Nazi sympathizer and financier of Arab terrorism, deceased for ten years now), Evo Morales (president of Bolivia) and to make a long list of flaws short last, but not least comes Robert Johnson. Poor, poor Robert Johnson – when 60 Minutes brought in 12 men, all named Robert Johnson to discuss the topic, all had some trouble boarding planes at one point or another. With a name as common like that, I think Jaunted finds the only possible solution to beating the hassle in their No Fly rant. Their solution – change your name to Bobby Johnny. Sounds a lot like Ricky Bobby to me.

As far as I know I’m not on the list, but I’d love to hear some first hand accounts. Any Gadling readers out there wrongly on the rotten No Fly List? Please, share.