BAGHDAD — Ancient ruins aside, touring war-torn Iraq for the last two weeks hasn't been as satisfying as Tina Townsend Greaves had hoped.
Not because of safety fears. To the contrary.
More because some sights that the Briton wanted to explore during her two week visit have been closed.
Greaves was one of eight visitors — including Britons and Americans — on the first officially sanctioned tour of Iraq outside the semiautonomous northern Kurdish region since the March 2003 U.S. invasion.
"Sadly, we did not have the chance to see the museum or any of the monuments because they've been shut," Greaves said at her hotel Saturday morning, preparing to sight-see in other parts of Baghdad. Iraq's restored National Museum, which houses priceless artifacts from the Stone Age through the Babylonian, Assyrian and Islamic periods, reopened to the public on a limited basis last month but was closed Saturday.
The trip was organized by a British adventure travel agency in the latest indication of security improvements.
It occurred without major violence but plenty of hassles as the group navigated the omnipresent checkpoints aimed at preserving the drastic drop in violence over the past 18 months.
'Safe for tourists'
With dashed hopes for seeing the museum, the group instead set off for the Ctesiphon Arch, a Persian ruin on the Tigris River near Salman Pak — once one of Iraq's most dangerous towns south of Baghdad.
The tourists also went to the International Zone in the heart of Baghdad, where U.S.-led forces and embassies are headquartered, and had their picture taken at the famous Crossed Swords landmark. The arches, depicting two hands holding swords, lead into parade grounds that Saddam Hussein had built after the Iran-Iraq war.
"I think Iraq is safe for tourists," Greaves said. "But I think maybe a few more of the sites need to be open to tourists because if tourists are going to come to Iraq, there has got to be things for them to see when they get here."
Violence still plagues Baghdad and other areas in Iraq on a daily basis and explosions sounded near the group's hotel in central Baghdad late Friday on the sixth anniversary of the U.S. invasion.
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Attracting tourists takes 'hard work'
The group was due to leave Sunday after a two-week visit that included stops in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, the city of Basra to the south, the ancient ruins of Babylon and Ur and the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.
The Americans and Britons even visited the site of the destroyed golden domed shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites of Shiite Islam, where a 2006 bombing triggered months of sectarian violence.
Some Westerners have tried to visit Iraq on an unofficial basis but usually have been detained and expelled by the military. Shiite pilgrims from Iran and other regional countries frequently travel to holy sites.
But the current trip marked the first officially organized and sanctioned visit by Western tourists since 2003.
Geoff Hann, managing director of Hinterland Travel, which organized the trip, said Iraq is ready to receive tourists — but just barely.
Getting tourists to come "will take a lot of effort and a lot of hard work," he said.
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