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Iraqis Go to Great Lengths to Get Away

Those who can afford a vacation risk their lives for a taste of normalcy outside the country.

July 03, 2006|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Americans may grumble about gas prices and long lines at the airport as they head out on summer vacation, but consider the holiday plans of Layla Mizhir and her 24-year-old son, Mohammed.

Over the weekend, the Mizhirs and another family arranged to pay $400 for the long, dangerous taxi ride across Iraq's western desert to Jordan, on bleak roads frequented by insurgents and highway robbers. When they reached the border, they knew they stood a chance of spending as much as 24 blazing-hot hours waiting at the desolate crossing.

Of course, they could have flown, if any tickets had been available. And even going to the airport presents its own set of problems. The road from Baghdad is one of the most dangerous in the city, a frequent target of both roadside bombers and snipers. Once at the airport, travelers often have to endure long delays that can stretch into overnight stays.

But the payoff for reaching Jordan would be a slice of heaven. The Mizhirs planned to treat themselves to the luxury of first-run movies, leisurely coffees at sidewalk cafes and visits to the mall. Most important, they would get a two-week breather from Iraq, which has deteriorated all the more in the last several months.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi vacations: A July 3 article in Section A about Iraqis seeking relief from living in a war zone by going on vacation referred to a U.S.-imposed economic blockade. It was a United Nations-imposed blockade.

So what happened along the way? More on that in a moment.

For some Iraqis, this is the first time in years that a vacation has even been possible, given the decades of turmoil in their homeland. With three wars, a lengthy U.S.-imposed economic blockade and a dictator who prevented his people from leaving the country, vacations abroad were long a luxury for only a chosen few.

Now they seem an absolute necessity for those who can afford it, a small minority of Iraq's population, given the anarchy and random killings that permeate Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Even the perks that used to make life bearable for the middle class are now largely inaccessible, either because of the perils of getting to them or because they no longer exist.

The restaurants that once attracted a loyal followings are shuttered because people are afraid bombs will be detonated while they sit at their tables. And a strict curfew keeps people off the streets here for almost all of the evening hours.

"We were members of clubs," said Mizhir, 55, a pharmacist whose family rarely ventures from home because the streets of Baghdad have become so dangerous. "We would go to the swimming pool and also do our exercises there. But we left it. It was the only way to have fun and we left it. Our life now is only at home."

Mizhir and her son are among the many bent on leaving the country, hoping against the odds that conditions improve by the time they return. That includes not only safety, but such essentials as electricity to run air conditioners and gasoline to fill their tanks.

There are more flights out of Iraq these days, though most are booked solid. Iraqi Airlines announced Wednesday that no more economy-class reservations would be taken for the next month and that first-class seats were filled for the next 10 days.

Safaa Ketani, a manager at Ishtar Travel Agency in Baghdad, said his airline bookings were up 50% from last year, largely because driving to Jordan or Syria had become so perilous. The latest U.S. State Department travel warning for Iraq described vehicular travel as "extremely dangerous," with numerous attacks on civilian vehicles and military convoys.

"They used to use cars to travel, but now they use planes, even though it's very expensive," Ketani said. "People are paying thousands of dollars just to leave Iraq. Seven or eight people from one family might use planes because it is safer."

Safer, perhaps, but still a major hassle, what with searches at a checkpoint in the sweltering heat before even reaching the airport, followed by a tiresome reloading of luggage into airport taxis for the last leg to the terminal. Then the norm is lengthy heel-cooling in the dreary waiting area before flights are called.

"People are willing to face half an hour or more of just being searched," said Haj Mahdi Izbah, the manager of Baghdad's Hijas Travel Agency. "And they are willing to spend hours in the airport rather than take the highway."

Or, as Ketani put it: "At least they know they are going someplace. They know they will no longer have to tolerate the situation here."

But even if they can leave the country, Iraqi vacationers are limited in the places they can go. Besides Syria and Jordan, the major destinations are Egypt, Iran and Lebanon. After that, the pickings are slim for Iraqis, who are largely unwelcome in many countries because of fears they will stay too long. Even in Jordan, new regulations were imposed recently that cut visits to two weeks, with a surcharge for each extra day in excess of that.

Dalia Lami, a Baghdad resident who fled to Amman, Jordan, a year ago after her brother was killed, said she has watched as the Jordanian capital has absorbed more and more Iraqis.

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