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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holiday Means Heaven for Iraqis

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 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.

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.

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 percent from last year, largely because driving to Jordan or Syria had become so perilous. There are 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, with searches at a checkpoint in the sweltering heat before even reaching the airport, followed by a tiresome reloading of luggage into taxis for the last leg to the terminal. Then the norm is lengthy heel-cooling in the dreary waiting area before flights are called.

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 had watched as the Jordanian capital absorbed more and more Iraqis.

"At the malls, you only hear Iraqi accents," she said by telephone. "In Iraq, you can't spend money. If you spend too much money you stand out in the crowd and risk kidnapping."

Lami, like so many other Iraqis, chafes at the treatment her countrymen endure when they travel abroad, even to relatively poor, developing nations such as Egypt. It is especially galling, she said, to be looked down on when Iraq was once known as one of the best-educated countries in the Middle East.

As for Layla Mizhir and her son, the two left for Jordan at 6 a.m. Saturday and reached the border at midday. But Jordanian officials picked out Mohammed, along with a number of other young men, and told them they could not cross. No official reason was given.

Mizhir was unwilling to cross without her son, so the two paid another $100 for the return ride to Baghdad. Along the way, they were searched at numerous checkpoints, including one that forced them to endure two hours in the afternoon desert sun. When they finally reached Baghdad, it was well past the 8:30 p.m. curfew and they were forced to stay the night at the taxi headquarters.

"It was a very bad day for us," Mizhir said Sunday.