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Iraqis itching to go abroad, now that they can get passports

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq will always be home for Radhia al Mustaf, but that doesn't mean she and her family couldn't use a break from the postwar terror and tedium.

"We just want to go outside (Iraq) to change the atmosphere, to see new sights," the 66-year-old Baghdad resident said recently at a travel agency as she prepared for a trip to Syria.

Under Saddam Hussein's 24-year regime and in the war's aftermath, such ventures were difficult and expensive, if not impossible. So since the interim Iraqi government began issuing new passports this month, countless Iraqis have lined up to get one.

The new passports look like the old ones, complete with green covers bearing the national emblem.

The difference is that Saddam tightly controlled who received a passport and where people could travel, if they could travel at all. So far, Iraq's new government has imposed few restrictions. It already has lifted a ban, based on Islamic law and imposed by Saddam, on women traveling alone.

"During the old regime, there were very strict conditions," said police Maj. Khamis Ibrahim, the deputy manager of one of Baghdad's five passport offices. "But these days, there are no such restrictions."

Ibrahim is a busy man these days.

On one recent morning, at least a dozen people packed his small office, pressing up against his desk as he riffled through their passport applications. Scores more lined the hall outside, waiting to apply or filling out paperwork while crouching on the floor. Even more swarmed in the dirt parking lot outside the building.

It's been this way since shortly after Iraqi sovereignty was restored June 28, Ibrahim said. His office has been processing about 2,000 applications daily, not even stopping for the Friday break in the workweek or the July 14 national holiday.

"We have a huge number of applicants," Ibrahim said.

Among them was Majid Hazea, who was seeking passports for himself and his two sisters. Provided the 50-year-old teacher from Abu Ghraib, a Baghdad suburb, can get time off from work, he plans to travel to Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

"My first goal is to go on Hajj," Hazea said, referring to the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, that's a must for Muslims. "People are excited and eager to go outside (Iraq). Even the prophet Muhammad recommended that people travel and see other cultures."

Other Iraqis want to travel to visit family and friends, or for business or medical treatment. They have been willing to endure long, crushing lines to submit their applications as soon as possible.

Haitham al Qaisey had been working his way through the passport office for two hours one recent day and had just about finished submitting applications for himself and his family. They plan to tour Syria and Jordan.

"Before, nobody could get a passport," the 30-year-old Baghdad resident said. "Now, it's free and everyone wants to get one."

The official cost of a new passport is about $1.35, the fee for an application. Ibrahim said reports of passports costing $100 to $300 were rumors, but applicants said a generous "tip" could ensure the delivery of a passport sooner rather than later.

So far, the government has issued passports to only a tiny fraction of those who've applied. Senior government officials, for instance, are on that short list. Others must wait or, possibly, pay.

"There's some blackmail for those who are in a hurry and want to get a passport," said Amat al Mudaras, the owner and manager of a Baghdad travel agency.

In recent weeks, more banners advertising getaways abroad—health spas in Syria and Turkey, visas to China, religious sites in Egypt—have popped up around Baghdad. In some cases, travel agencies have banded together to offer package tours.

Yet many would-be travelers are stuck waiting for new passports that they don't expect to arrive for three or four weeks, Mudaras said. More than 100 of her customers are in that position.

Diana Mal-Allah is more fortunate.

The student, 18, is one of three Iraqi delegates to the Youth Leadership Congress in Washington this month. That ensured she would get one-day passport service. It didn't shorten the four-hour application process, but that was a small price to pay.

"It's worth it," she said. "I'm very eager to visit the United States."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PASSPORTS

Iraq

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