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Iraq 2017 Crime & Safety Report: Erbil

Near East > Iraq; Near East > Iraq > Erbil

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

U.S. Consulate General Erbil does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.

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.

Please review OSAC’s Erbil-specific webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.

Crime Threats

Crime statistics/reporting mechanisms in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) are deemed unreliable relative to U.S. crime data collection methods. However, a worsening economic situation and fiscal crisis in the IKR has resulted in a moderate increase of crime. Informally, IKR officials have commented that property thefts and thefts from residences haven risen in the past several years. Most of the crime is nonviolent, and Westerners and diplomats are not targeted. Persons associated with U.S. Consulate Erbil are required to travel with a Protective Security Detail (PSD) due to terrorism threats, limiting potential criminal actions against Consulate personnel. The Consulate recommends that individuals who are required to live or travel in Iraq utilize an in-country security advisor or some type of PSD support to limit potential terrorist and criminal threats. The Kurdish police and security services are out in adequate numbers, and visitors can move around urban areas in relative safety.

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, users should take routine precautions to prevent malware, spyware, malicious code, and phishing schemes from harming your computer or business network.

Other Areas of Concern

In the years after the departure of the U.S. military in December 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), terrorist and insurgent groups attracted a large number of foreign fighters into western Iraq. Numbers of domestic and external insurgents grew significantly, and as they moved around the country with relative ease, they increased their lethality and ability to conduct complex attacks and ground assaults. While freedom of insurgent movement is greatly reduced in 2017, ISIS maintains lethal capabilities and presents a serious threat almost anywhere along Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Army defensive lines. Terrorists often target Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces, Kurdistan regional security forces, the government of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The KRG devotes considerable resources to protect its key government buildings, vital infrastructure, the diplomatic community, and soft targets (hotels, churches, mosques, shopping areas). There were several significant bombings in 2014 and 2015 against the KRG and the U.S. Consulate, and insurgents continue to carry out effective small and large-scale attacks throughout Iraq that cause casualties, hinder the freedom of movement for citizens, and influence public opinion. Throughout 2016, Kurdish security agencies arrested members of ISIS terrorist cells planning attacks in Erbil City and elsewhere in the IKR.

Travelers should avoid any areas in the vicinity of Kurdish defensive lines and stay clear of disputed boundaries and recently liberated areas, which are not easily defined. Recently liberated areas have not been fully cleared of insurgents and contain unexploded ordinance and unstable structures heavily damaged from ground fighting and airstrikes. Instability and violence may erupt with little/no warning to include insurgents attempting to recapture lost territory.

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 constructed of asphalt, while rural roads are typically hard-packed dirt and 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. Roads in the IKR can become congested to the point of inhibiting movement due to host country checkpoints especially along roads leading into and out of Erbil. Travelers should 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 you in the event of a road mishap or a delayed arrival. 

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 drive defensively. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.” 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, it is wise to 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. Driving a serviceable vehicle reduces the possibility of a breakdown and subsequent hazards associated with being isolated on the road overnight.    

Public Transportation Conditions

Poorly-maintained city transit vehicles are frequently involved in accidents or breakdowns. Though city buses run regularly, their use is not recommended because buses frequently change routes and stops without notice. Long distance buses are in poor condition and often drive at speeds unsafe for road conditions. 

Train and passenger rail infrastructure remains inadequate. 

Taxis are plentiful and clearly marked, but it is best to have a reputable taxi company or private car service called ahead of time from an apartment or a hotel front desk, vice hailing a taxi from the street.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Two international airports operate within the IKR: Erbil International Airport and Sulaimaniya International Airport. Many flights operating from Europe and the Middle East fly directly into the Kurdistan region. Overall, airports in the IKR are clean, functional, secure, and well-maintained. The local security force, the Asayish, control 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. 

The FAA prohibits U.S. civil aviation from operating in Iraq or overflying Iraqi airspace to include the Kurdistan region.

  • On March 15, 2015, three 122mm rockets impacted an area 7.5 KM SW of the Erbil Airport and caused the suspension of flights by European and Gulf carriers for weeks. 
  • In November 2015, Russia fired several sorties of cruise missiles through IKR airspace en route to Syria, shutting down both airports. Flights were cancelled for several weeks until overflight protocols could be negotiated.

Foreign carriers closely monitor the security situation in Erbil and are willing to suspend service with little/no notice if they perceive a risk to their aircraft. 

Other Travel Conditions

Roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are not common in the Kurdistan region, but smaller handheld explosives and improvised devices have been found by Kurdish law enforcement.

The U.S. Consulate General personnel may only travel using PSDs and in armored vehicles. All Consulate General movements off the compound are restricted to mission essential, official business and require both armored vehicles and armed protective security personnel. Armored vehicles and local security teams are available in the IKR for hire on short and long-term contracts.

Travelers should know where the Kurdish defensive lines, recently liberated areas, and disputed internal boundaries are located. Border areas between neighboring countries can be dangerous and often not clearly defined. If transit across borders is required, only use established border crossing points. 

Terrorism Threat

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED ERBIL AS BEING A CRITICAL-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORISM ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

Despite significant battlefield setbacks, northern Iraq and northern Syria remain centers of gravity for ISIS, which continues to control the western portion of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. In 2014, ISIS was able to take advantage of the porous border between Iraq and Syria and seize lands that became the nucleus of a self-proclaimed Caliphate. Kurdish Peshmerga forces maintain approximately a 700-mile (1,100 km) defensive line against ISIS commonly referred to as FLOT (forward line of troops) or the Kurdish defensive lines. While ISIS has been pushed back toward Syria, the security situation in the IKR remains fluid and could deteriorate. 

ISIS has had a permanent presence in north/west Iraq since the summer of 2014, increasing the threat for terrorism in Erbil and the neighboring northern provinces of the IKR. Although ISIS’s advance has been reversed, the front lines remain approximately 30 to 35 miles from Erbil and recently liberated areas are as close as 25 miles from Erbil. While ISIS continues to suffer battlefield setbacks, the threat of asymmetric attacks on soft targets and IKR facilities remains high. The Consulate remains at emergency staffing levels.

In 2016, ISIS lost both territory and facilitation routes in northern Iraq, to include Mount Sinjar and the surrounding area, parts of the Ninawa Plains, and eastern Mosul. Although on the defensive, ISIS still remains capable and extremely dangerous. Progress against ISIS in 2016 was attributed to the international anti-ISIS coalition and greatly improved coordination between Iraqi Security Forces and the KRG. A reduction of foreign fighters entering the region to support ISIS has been noted.

On October 21, 2016, ISIS launched a well-executed incursion into Kirkuk, taking over public buildings and a refinery, blocking roads, randomly killing civilians, and engaging security services in prolonged firefights and sieges before they were defeated. Loss of life and property damage was significant. On December 16, 2015, ISIS broke Peshmerga lines and overwhelmed Kurdish observation posts and a command center before being halted.

The western portion of Mosul and areas west remain under ISIS’s control. As Mosul is wrested from ISIS, the IKR will experience additional security activity from the Kurdish Peshmerga and Kurdish police and security services. The collective opinion is that Mosul will be liberated, but the region will require sustained international humanitarian and military assistance and national reconciliation to sustain achieved progress. While the Iraqi army has made significant gains isolating Mosul, they have been accompanied by Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) as far north as Tall Afar, placing them into potential friction with Peshmerga units positioned to the north.

Kirkuk, while under Kurdish control, remains a highly unstable location with frequent attacks and security incidents. In late 2016, Shia militias entered southern Kirkuk, ostensibly to protect Shia and Turkman minorities from ISIS attacks. Past activity in/around Kirkuk has included vehicle bombs, Katusha rockets, and roadside IEDs. The Kirkuk police and security services routinely arrest and interdict ISIS affiliates attempting to infiltrate Erbil and Sulaimaniya. In January 2016, Kurdish authorities interrupted an active ISIS plot to detonate an explosive device in Sulaimaniya and in November 2016 intercepted suicide bomber teams attempting to enter the region from Kirkuk.

The increase in attacks in 2015 and 2016 indicates the willingness of radical groups to use terrorism for political and economic gain. These groups hold territory, destabilize regional governments, and disrupt life for Iraqi citizens. In 2016, Turkish air strikes continued against Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) elements in the IKR. This action has generated concern about retaliatory attacks against Turkish interests in/around Erbil, but no retaliatory attacks have occurred. In early 2017, Turkey continues to maintain a military presence in the IKR, a source of friction with the central government in Baghdad that has eased somewhat with diplomatic efforts. PKK-affiliated groups maintain a presence in the Sinjar region, creating a destabilizing effect and increasing the risk of armed conflict.

Anti-American/Anti-Western Sentiment

While anti-American sentiment is perceived throughout parts of southern Iraq, the Kurds generally have a favorable view of Americans and Westerners. In spite of internal political divisions and the threat from ISIS, the IKR enjoys a strong relationship with the U.S., and the region remains relatively secure. The KRG prioritizes the safety of Americans and citizens of Western countries. By comparison to other areas in Iraq, attacks and serious security incidents have occurred in the southern provinces of Anbar, Baghdad, Salahaddin, and Ninawa 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 urban areas in the IKR. In 2016, there were no serious attacks against Americans or 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.

Further complicating the security environment, internal ethnic, religious, and political rifts remain along the disputed boundaries of the IKR.

Civil Unrest

Civil unrest occasionally takes place in the IKR. Religious and political rallies attract hundreds, and occasionally thousands, of participants. Protests are typically peaceful, require a permit, and are heavily monitored by Kurdish police and security services. Demonstrations have been a consequence of political strife and internal economic challenges. Five major political parties operate in the IKR, with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Change Movement (Gorran) taking the leading shares of voters. The KDP’s political influence is focused primarily in the IKR provinces of Erbil and Dahuk, while the PUK is based in Sulaimaniya and Halabja, as well as in Kirkuk.

  • In 2015, violent demonstrations over the nonpayment of government salaries quickly escalated into a major clash between KDP and Gorran supporters that ultimately led to the suspension of the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP). Demonstrations over lapses in civil servant pay and worsening economic conditions continued in 2016, primarily in Sulaimaniya but were not as violent. While talks to re-open the IKP continue, Gorran party leaders are barred from entering Erbil, and Parliament remains inactive.


Religious/Ethnic Violence

ISIS has denied religious freedom and persecuted minority groups across the territory it has held. Discord between Sunni and Shia Turkman, Kurds, and Shia militias continue to escalate along the Iraqi-Kurdish disputed area to include the restive region of Tuz Khurmatu. The KRG has sought to reduce inter-religious tensions and control clashes between ethnic groups. However, internal inter-ethnic conflict occasionally takes place in Kirkuk and other KRG-controlled areas that have significant non-Kurdish populations. The possibility of attacks and incidents rise around religious and civic holidays and dates of historical significance. While the IKR has become host to almost two million internally displaced persons and Syrian refugees, the provinces of Erbil, Dahuk, and Sulaimaniya have not experienced serious religious or ethnic strife. In general, Iraqi Kurds are widely viewed as 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 32 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and often exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit in 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. 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

The battle against ISIS by the Iraqi national government forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces has taken a toll on Iraq’s critical infrastructure, including the nation’s oil reserves and industrial infrastructure, refineries, power plants, and the country’s hydraulic power system. Power failures occur frequently, and almost all homes and businesses rely on backup generators to maintain consistent power. Power outages increase during the summer.

There has been considerable attention given to the status of the Mosul Dam and if it will fail. There are ongoing, international, Italian-led efforts to improve the structural integrity of the dam and reinforce the porous ground beneath it. The dam was reinforced in 2016. While the dam continues to be strengthened, integrity of the structure remains a serious concern. If the dam fails, it is estimated flood waters would cover the Tigris floodplain and reach as far south as Baghdad. All essential/life support services would be impacted. It is strongly recommended all U.S. citizens, commercial businesses, and private organizations develop contingency plans to quickly relocate their personnel in the event of a dam failure.    

Economic Concerns

Economic espionage and intellectual property thefts are on the rise worldwide. Because these events are often not reported publicly, it is difficult to identify victims, business sectors impacted, or offenders. In general, the threat of economic espionage and intellectual property thefts is not endemic to the IKR. However, business travelers, non-governmental organizations, and faith-based charities should always be mindful of securing laptops, PDAs, and portable drives and not leave them unattended in hotel rooms, public meeting venues, or in vehicles.

Privacy Concerns

The growth of Internet usage has raised concerns about privacy. Individuals visiting or working in Iraq are reminded to 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.

Drug-related Crimes

Informally, Kurdish authorities comment that drug use and cross border drug trafficking are not a serious concern and any drug possession that may exist in the IKR is for personal use, vice large-scale sales, distribution, or cross-border trafficking. Kurdish airport and border control agencies have drug detecting technology. 

Kidnapping Threat

U.S. citizens remain at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence. In 2016, 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 official Travel Warning are urged to 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 in the IKR.

Police Response

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

IKR police and military units have the ability to 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 quickly where required and are equipped with modern weapons and security equipment. Specialized units (tactical response, explosive ordinance disposal teams) have enhanced training and equipment. IKR police and security services are professional and highly responsive to diplomats, Americans, and Westerners. 

Kurds do not apply U.S. laws and jurisprudence standards, and all personnel operating in Iraq are subject to Iraqi law and Kurdish regulations. Americans should carry proper identification to avoid undue questioning and delays at checkpoints or if you come into contact with the police. Americans should make several copies of passports and other vital identity documents. Visitors and expatriates should avoid unauthorized photography, which is strictly prohibited, especially of IKR security forces and checkpoints. IKR military personnel may confiscate equipment and temporarily detain individuals taking unauthorized photographs or asking probing questions to IKR police and security officials. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report “Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.”

While the IKR may issue “Kurdish visas,” the government of Iraq strictly enforces requirements regarding visas and stamps for entry and exit, residency cards, vehicle registration, authorizations for weapons, and movements through checkpoints. Kurdish visas are only recognized in the IKR and are NOT recognized in other parts of Iraq. 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 15 days.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

Americans should cooperate fully and follow instructions if approached by IKR security personnel. Police harassment of Americans is rare in the IKR, but if detained, Americans should follow the instructions of host nation security and be compliant and respectful. The ability of the Consulate General to assist U.S. citizens facing difficulty, including arrest, is extremely limited. 

Crime Victim Assistance

Victims of crime should notify the Consulate by contacting the American Citizen Services via e-mail at ErbilACS@state.gov or via phone at 066-211-4554(from Iraq) or 240-264-3467 ext. 4554 (from the United States) during regular business hours. For after-hours emergencies (including weekends and holidays), please call 066-211-4000 from Iraq) or 1-240-264-3467 (from the U.S.).

Police/Security Agencies

Drones and UAVs: In 2016, there has been an increase in visitors bringing personal use drones into the IKR. Drones have been used by ISIS 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 the Kurdish Police and security services. Persons using drones in the IKR without prior approval face detention, arrest, and deportation from the IKR. Drones will be confiscated and not returned. Drones discovered in checked or carry-on baggage upon arrival into the IKR will be confiscated, and the traveler risks possible detention and/or denied entry into the IKR.

Medical Emergencies

Many IKR hospitals and emergency medical services do not meet U.S. standards. Although a few hospitals and dental clinics subscribe to a Western standard of care, local hospitals typically have substandard staffing, equipment, and may not carry specialized medicines. Individuals associated with private businesses operating in the IKR are responsible for arranging their own medical care. IKR hospitals should be utilized only as a contingency for urgent life or death emergencies. Hospitals, out-patient care, and diagnostic support services (imaging, other medical specialists) require cash payment. Hospitals will not accept insurance, credit cards or promissory notes.

Contact Information for Recommended Hospitals/Clinics

A list of doctors and hospitals can be obtained from the Consulate’s American Citizen Services office by e-mailing
ErbilACS@state.gov. For security reasons, the names of organizations and individuals are not posted on the Consulate’s American Citizen Services website.

Recommended Insurance Posture

Americans should secure private medical evacuation insurance and have enough cash on hand to pay for urgent medical treatment.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

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

OSAC Country Council Information

The Erbil Country Council currently meets quarterly and has approximately 60 members. Please contact OSAC’s Middle East/North Africa team with any questions or to join.

U.S. Consulate Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

The U.S. Consulate is located in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil City, within the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The Consulate is situated in close proximity to the Erbil International Airport. 

Physical Address: U.S. Consulate General in Erbil, 413 Ishtar, Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq

Hours of Operation: 0800-1700, Sun-Thurs

Consulate Contact Numbers

For all non-emergency inquiries, please email us at ErbilACS@state.gov.

For American citizen emergencies:

During business hours from 0800-1700, Sun-Thurs (local Erbil time is eight hours ahead of the East Coast time for the U.S.)

  • From Iraq: 066-211-4554
  • From the U.S.: 240-264-3467 and x. 4554

     

    After hours emergencies and on weekends (Fri, Sat, holidays)

  • From Iraq: 066-211-4000 and ask to speak with the Duty Officer
  • From the U.S.: 240-264-3467 and ask to speak with the Duty Officer 

 

Website: http://erbil.usconsulate.gov/

Nearby Posts

Embassy Baghdad: http://iraq.usembassy.gov/

To contact the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad:

From Iraq: 0770-443-1286 (Emergencies Only)
From the United States: 011-964-770-443-1286 (Emergencies Only)

Consulate Basrah: http://basrah.usconsulate.gov/
Consulate Kirkuk: http://kirkuk.usconsulate.gov/

Consulate Guidance

Many services that once existed -- U.S. military-provided medical evacuations, transportation, convoy support, lodging, quick reaction forces, and personnel security details -- are no longer available through the Consulate. U.S. citizens who choose to visit or reside in Iraq despite the official Travel Warning are urged to take responsibility for their own personal security and belongings.

American citizen travelers should enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) in order to receive messages from the Embassy about safety and security.

There is no visa information available by calling the phone numbers; they are only for U.S. citizens who require emergency assistance. For visa information or questions, you must email the visa unit at ErbilNIV@state.gov.

Additional Resources

Iraq Country Information Sheet