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Overseas Security Advisory Council
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Iraq 2020 Crime & Safety Report: Erbil

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Iraq country page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Iraq at Level 4, indicating travelers should not travel to the country due to terrorism and armed conflict. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) enjoys a strong relationship with the U.S. Despite internal political divisions, the recent incursion by Turkey into northern Syria, political instability in Baghdad and areas of southern Iraq, and the ongoing ISIS threat, the IKR remains relatively secure.

In 2017, after the IKR’s independence referendum led to a rise in tensions with the Government of Iraq (GOI), Iraqi forces reasserted control over Kirkuk, a disputed city and province that had come under IKR control in 2014 during the campaign against ISIS. The Kurdish defensive line has been static since then, but ISIS takes advantage of the 20km standoff between Iraqi forces and Iraqi Kurdistan’s armed forces (Peshmerga) to operate. Additionally, when Iraqi Army units reclaimed Mosul in Ninewa Province during the anti-ISIS campaign, they were accompanied by predominantly Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) along the Kurdish defensive line, placing them in conflict with Peshmerga units. PMF units currently active in areas from Kirkuk to Mosul have been known to extort the local population, and some PMF groups and members harbor anti-U.S. sentiment.

Crime Threats

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Erbil as being a LOW-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Crime statistics and/or crime reporting mechanisms in the IKR are unreliable relative to U.S. crime-data collection methods. The IKR is emerging from an economic downturn and fiscal crisis that officials claimed had resulted in a moderate increase in crime. Informally, IKR officials have commented that property thefts and thefts from residences had risen in the past several years. To date, most crime is nonviolent, and criminals generally do not target Westerners and diplomats. Kurdish police and security services are out in adequate numbers, and visitors can move around urban areas in relative safety. Review OSAC’s report, All That You Should Leave Behind.

Since Consulate personnel must travel with a Protective Security Detail (PSD) due to terrorism threats, potential criminal actions against Consulate personnel are limited.

Individuals required to live or travel in Iraq should use an in-country security advisor or some type of PSD support to limit potential terrorist and criminal threats. Travelers to the IKR should consider using all available security assets to minimize any potential terrorist or criminal risks to include protective security or a local driver who knows routes, speaks the local language, and knows which areas may present a higher degree of risk. While traveling in the IKR, interpreters can answer basic questions, explain the purpose of your travel, and negotiate with Kurdish security at checkpoints. Avoid traveling alone. PSD personnel can render assistance in the event of an emergency and call for additional police and security support. All travelers should carry a cell phone that has both calling and texting capability.

Cybersecurity Issues

No specific, ongoing cyber security threat exists in the region. However, terrorist groups and criminals have used the latest technology, social media, and the internet to recruit and further their cause. When managing personal accounts online, take routine precautions to prevent malware, spyware, malicious code, and phishing schemes from harming your computer or business network.

The growth of internet use has raised concerns about privacy. Individuals visiting or working in Iraq should be careful with the information they share online, to include posting strongly worded or divisive comments critical of any political party or agency in the IKR.

Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Road conditions throughout Iraq are reasonably good, and roads are generally well constructed. Urban and interstate roads are usually asphalt, while rural roads are typically hard-packed dirt/gravel. Most roads do not have an adequate shoulder for emergency stops. Most roads outside of urban centers are one lane in each direction. Vehicle security checkpoints and dense urban populations often result in significant traffic congestion. Drivers do not typically exhibit U.S. standard road etiquette or adhere to traffic laws/road markings. Expatriates and visitors who decide to drive should do so defensively. Drivers in the IKR can be aggressive and will routinely exceed posted speed limits, tailgate, and attempt reckless lane changes and passing. When on long trips, carry water, a medical kit, appropriate seasonal clothing, and adequate cash in the event you have an accident requiring vehicle repair or urgent medical care. Record-heavy rainfall in November and December 2018 damaged secondary roads and bridges.

Consider taking up-to-date maps, use a GPS navigation device, and call in-country contacts to give status checks (waypoints) while in transit. These periodic updates will assist in the event of a road mishap or a delayed arrival. Driving a serviceable vehicle reduces the possibility of a breakdown and subsequent hazards associated with isolation on the road overnight. Know the locations of Kurdish defensive lines, recently liberated areas, and disputed internal boundaries. Border areas between neighboring countries can be dangerous and often not clearly defined. Use established border crossings. Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are not common in the Kurdistan region, but smaller handheld explosives and unexploded ordnance (UXO) are present, especially in areas previously under ISIS control. Avoid unstable structures heavily damaged from ground fighting and airstrikes. Consulate personnel only travel using PSDs and in armored vehicles. Armored vehicles and local security teams are available in the IKR for hire on short and long-term contracts.

Public Transportation Conditions

Poorly maintained city vehicles are frequently involved in accidents or breakdowns. Though city buses run regularly, their routes and stops change frequently and without notice. Long-distance buses are in poor condition, and often drive at speeds unsafe for road conditions. Train and passenger rail infrastructure remain inadequate.

Taxis are plentiful and clearly marked, but it is best to call a reputable taxi company or private car service ahead of time from an apartment or a hotel front desk, rather than hailing a taxi from the street. Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Airports in the IKR are clean, functional, secure and well maintained. The local security force (Asayish) controls the outer perimeter, gates, and access points around the airports. Airport screening of arriving vehicles, passengers, luggage, cargo, and identity documents is thorough. Modern security equipment and passenger screening protocols are in place. A 2018 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) report found physical, procedural, and technical security procedures at Erbil International Airport (EBL) to be on par with other international airports worldwide.

In 2017, the FAA issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) amending its prohibition on U.S. civil aviation operations in the Baghdad FIR (ORBB) to allow overflights at or above FL 260. The coalition of Iraqi security forces, allied nations, and supporting militia elements has successfully reduced the area under ISIS control. In addition, the operational anti-aircraft-capable weapons possessed by ISIS or other anti-U.S. extremist/militant elements are altitude-limited and would not pose a risk to U.S. civil aviation overflights at or above FL 260, provided that the flights remain clear of areas where fighting is likely to occur or re-emerge.

With permission from the Iraqi government, the Turkish Air Force regularly carries out air strikes against members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in border regions between Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, and Iran. The air strikes are an effort to weaken the PKK, which the international community considers a terrorist organization. Foreign carriers closely monitor the security situation in Erbil and are willing to suspend service with little or no notice if they perceive a risk to their aircraft.

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Erbil as being a CRITICAL-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Although ISIS no longer holds physical territory, the group has shown resilience. Remaining ISIS elements have transitioned to recruitment, fundraising, and insurgency operations. ISIS maintains lethal capabilities and presents a serious threat almost anywhere along the 700-mile-long Peshmerga and Iraqi Army defensive line. Throughout Ninewa and Kirkuk provinces, ISIS frequently conducts asymmetric attacks, to include the use of vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs), ambushes, small unit infantry-style assaults, and assassinations. Terrorists often target Iraqi and Western civilians, Iraqi security forces, Kurdistan regional security forces, the Government of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Although on the defensive, ISIS remains capable and extremely dangerous. Recent reporting indicates that ISIS maintains sleeper cells in the western portion of Mosul. ISIS remnants constitute a threat to Westerners operating in Diyala, Kirkuk, or traversing Mosul and traveling west toward Tal Afar and Sinjar.

Turkish air strikes continue against PKK elements in the northern IKR. PKK-affiliated groups maintain a presence in the Sinjar region, creating a destabilizing effect and increasing the risk of armed conflict.

The KRG devotes considerable resources to protect its key government buildings, vital infrastructure, the diplomatic community, and soft targets such as hotels, churches, mosques, and shopping areas. Insurgents continue to conduct effective small- and large-scale attacks throughout Iraq that cause casualties, hinder the freedom of movement for citizens, and influence public opinion.

Anti-U.S./Anti-Western Sentiment

Kurds generally have a favorable view of the U.S. citizens and other Westerners, despite protests and social media expressing anger with U.S. foreign policy. The KRG prioritizes the safety of U.S. citizens and other Westerners.

Attacks and serious security incidents have occurred in the southern Iraqi provinces of Anbar, Baghdad, Salahaddin, and Ninewa on a far more frequent basis than in the IKR. However, the threat of attacks in the IKR remains a concern. The heavy presence of the Peshmerga on Kurdish defensive lines has been a stabilizing force, especially when working in tandem with Coalition air power and U.S. advise/assist efforts. This combination has undoubtedly prevented significant acts of terrorism in Erbil and other major urbans areas in the IKR. In 2019, there were no serious attacks against U.S. citizens or other Westerners in the IKR.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Erbil as being a CRITICAL-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.

Civil Unrest 

The last significant protests occurred in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in late 2017 and early 2018 after the KRG cut public sector salaries. Protests are typically peaceful, require a permit, and feature heavy Kurdish police and security service monitoring. Demonstrations have been a consequence of the fallout of the referendum vote and perceived lack of support from the international community.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

ISIS denied religious freedom and persecuted minority groups across the territory it held. The KRG has sought to reduce inter-religious tensions and control clashes between ethnic groups. The possibility of attacks and incidents rises around religious and civic holidays and dates of historical significance. While the IKR hosts nearly one million Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) within its governorates, along with additional IDPs in the KRG-controlled portions of Ninewa, the provinces of Erbil, Duhok, and Sulaimaniya have not experienced serious religious or ethnic strife. In general, Iraqi Kurds are tolerant, accepting, and generous to all groups persecuted and displaced by ISIS.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Iraq and the Kurdish environment can be harsh. Temperatures can fall below 30°F in the winter and often exceed 110°F during the summer. Dust storms, which can reduce visibility and impede aircraft, occur frequently during the spring. Heavy fog, often lasting for hours, is common during the winter. Winter snow typically falls in areas of higher elevation, closing roads until warmer temperatures return. By U.S. or Western standards, the IKR lacks road treatment and clearing equipment sufficient to mitigate hazards associated with snow and ice on roadways. This is especially true outside major urban centers.

Critical Infrastructure Concerns

The battle against ISIS has taken a toll on Iraq’s critical infrastructure, including the nation’s oil reserves and industrial infrastructure, refineries, power plants, and, most recently, the hydraulic power system. Power failures occur frequently, and almost all homes and businesses rely on backup generators. Power outages increase during the summer months.

Iraq continues to suffer from serious deficiencies in public services. Electricity often fails. Iraqi fire and rescue services are still developing, and hotels may not have fire safety equipment. Landline telephone service is very limited, and while cellular service has expanded rapidly into urban areas, reliability varies by region. The banking and financial infrastructure is underdeveloped, as transactions remain largely cash based. ATMs are extremely rare in most of Iraq.

The possible failure or breach of the Mosul Dam has been a cause for concern for the better part of the past decade; however, a long-term U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Iraqi joint project has allayed fears of an imminent collapse. Even with a lack of proper maintenance, structural integrity over the next five years is all but guaranteed.

Economic Concerns/Intellectual Property Theft

Economic espionage and intellectual property theft are on the rise worldwide. Because these events are often unreported, it is difficult to identify victims and business sectors impacted or offenders. In general, the threat of economic espionage and intellectual property theft is not endemic to the IKR.

U.S. citizens have been the victims of kidnapping, assault, or threats by family members in response to family disputes over property. Land disputes are common in Iraq and are often difficult to resolve through legal channels. The U.S. Embassy cannot protect personal property and cannot take sides in a legal dispute. U.S. citizens wishing to purchase property should be aware of the risks, including not being physically present to oversee property. Those involved in a court dispute run the risk of having cases filed against them, and they may face arrest and jail time.

Personal Identity Concerns

U.S. citizens, especially female dual nationals of Iraq, have traveled to Iraq with family members and have been subject to threats, kidnappings, and extortion, including incidents of loss of custody of children or forced marriage. Women and children should pay particular attention to any warning signs, including husbands or other family members withholding money or travel documents after arrival in Iraq, and should also be aware that U.S. laws cannot protect U.S. citizens when they are outside of the United States. The Iraqi police and legal system may offer little protection. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for female travelers.

Iraqi law prohibits discrimination based on race, disability, or social status, but it does not address the issue of sexual orientation or gender identity. Societal discrimination in employment, occupation, and housing based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and unconventional appearance is common. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

Review OSAC’s report, Freedom to Practice, and the State Department’s webpage on security for faith-based travelers.

Iraqi law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, and other state services. The government enforces the law in the public sector, but not in the private sector. Access for persons with disabilities to buildings and in educational and work settings remains inconsistent. Public and government buildings, as well as public bathrooms, may not be accessible. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crime

Crime statistics and/or crime reporting mechanisms in the IKR are unreliable. Informally, Kurdish authorities comment that drug use and cross border drug trafficking are becoming a more serious concern. Most drug possession in the IKR is for personal use, however, rather than for large-scale sales, distribution, or cross-border trafficking. Kurdish airport and border control agencies have drug detecting technology.

Kidnapping Threat

U.S. citizens in Iraq remain at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence. In 2018, the threat of violence in the IKR continued with the presence of ISIS near Kurdish areas. U.S. citizens who choose to visit or reside in Iraq despite the travel advisory must take responsibility for their own personal security and belongings. Until the security situation significantly improves, the threat of kidnapping/hostage-taking, unlawful detention, and isolation remain a serious concern for all visitors. Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Other Issues

ISIS has weaponized small, personal-use drones. ISIS used drones to conduct pre-attack reconnaissance and drop small explosive charges on Coalition forces. The use of drones by anyone other than Kurdish security agencies or approved Coalition forces will initiate a rapid and aggressive response from Kurdish police and security services. Persons using drones without prior approval face detention, arrest, and deportation. Authorities will confiscate drones and not return them, including those in checked or carry-on baggage; travelers risk detention and/or denial of entry into the IKR. Customs officers have the broad authority to search persons or vehicles at Iraqi ports of entry. Officers may confiscate any goods they deem may pose a threat to the peace, security, health, environment, or social order of Iraq. Authorities may confiscate antiquities or cultural items suspected of illegal export, as well as undeclared goods. Visitors may also have to return such goods, at their expense, to the jurisdiction from which they came. Read the State Department’s webpage on customs and import restrictions for information on what you cannot take into or out of other countries.

While the IKR may grant border access without an Iraqi visa, the government of Iraq strictly enforces requirements regarding visas and stamps for entry/exit, residency cards, vehicle registration, authorizations for weapons, and movements through checkpoints. Visitors must have an Iraqi visa for travel into Iraqi areas outside of the IKR. All non-diplomatic passport holders must obtain a residency permit if they intend to stay in the IKR for more than ten days.

Unauthorized photography, especially of IKR security forces and checkpoints, is illegal. IKR military personnel may confiscate equipment and temporarily detain individuals taking unauthorized photographs or asking probing questions to IKR police and security officials. Review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

Police Response

The emergency line in Iraq is 130. IKR police and military units can respond quickly to security incidents, terrorist attacks, and criminal activities. IKR police and security services have sufficient training and command and control to direct their officers where required, and have modern weapons and security equipment. Specialized units, such as tactical response and explosive ordinance disposal teams, have enhanced training and equipment. IKR police and security services are professional and highly responsive to diplomats, U.S. citizens, and other Westerners. For local first responders, refer to the Consulate’s Emergency Assistance page.

Carry proper identification to avoid undue questioning and delays at checkpoints or if you encounter police. Make several copies of passports and other vital identity documents.

Cooperate and follow instructions fully if approached by IKR security personnel. Police harassment is rare; detained U.S. nationals should follow the instructions of host-nation security and be compliant and respectful.

Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure. The ability of the Consulate General to assist U.S. citizens facing difficulty, including arrest, is extremely limited. Many services that once existed (e.g. U.S. military-provided medical evacuations, transportation, convoy support, lodging, quick reaction forces, and personal security details) are no longer available through the Consulate. U.S. citizens who choose to visit or reside in Iraq despite the travel advisory must take responsibility for their own personal security and belongings.

Medical Emergencies

Many IKR hospitals and emergency medical services do not meet U.S. standards. Although a few hospitals and dental clinics meet a Western standard of care, local hospitals typically have substandard staffing and equipment, and may not carry specialized medicines. Use IKR hospitals only as a contingency for urgent life-or-death emergencies. For medical assistance and evacuation services, refer to the Consulate’s Medical Assistance page.

Basic, modern medical care and medicines are not widely available in Iraq. Conflict has left some medical facilities non-operational and medical stocks and supplies severely depleted. Blood banks exist, though the blood supply may not be sufficient in the event of an emergency and likely has not been tested under U.S. standards for infectious disease.

There is limited mental health or psychiatric care available. As Iraq is a country under conflict, pre-existing mental health conditions and symptoms may resurface or exacerbate due to exposure to ongoing events and the environment.

Secure private medical evacuation insurance and have enough cash on hand to pay for urgent medical treatment. Hospitals, out-patient care, and diagnostic support services, such as imaging or other medical specialists, require cash payment. Hospitals will not accept insurance, credit cards, or promissory notes. The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

Tuberculosis, MERS, Cholera, and food-borne illnesses are prevalent, as are breathing problems caused by frequently hazardous air quality.

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Iraq.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad.

OSAC Country Council Information

The Country Council in Erbil meets quarterly. Contact OSAC’s Middle East & North Africa team for more information or to join.

U.S. Consulate Contact Information

413 Ishtar, Ankawa, Erbil

Hours of Operation: 0800 to 1700, Sunday to Thursday.

Website: https://iq.usembassy.gov/embassy-consulates/erbil/

Embassy Operator: 066-211-4554 (from Iraq) or 1-240-264-3467 extension 4554 (from the U.S.)

Emergency calls after normal business hours: 066-211-4000 (from Iraq) or 1-240-264-3467 (from the U.S.) and ask to speak with the Duty Officer 

Other U.S. Diplomatic Posts In Iraq

Embassy Baghdad, Al Kindi Street, Baghdad, Iraq. 0760-030-3000 (from Iraq) or 1-301-985-8841 ext. 2833/3343 (from the U.S.).

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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