BY INSI

SAFETY ADVISORY (UPDATE): Iraq as at 20/05/13

The security situation in Iraq continues to change on a daily basis.

At least 42 people were killed and 175 injured in a series of car bomb attacks in Baghdad and Basra today. The attacks come amid growing political and sectarian tension in the country. Iraq remains a dangerous place to work; kidnap, bombs, targeted killings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are still a daily threat all over the country.

In the early years of the Iraq conflict, coalition forces responded to security threats and incidents. However since their departure this role has been left to Iraqi security forces and they are not always able to respond as quickly or with as many resources.

Consider that you may have to work alone while in Iraq and ensure that your security plan is robust and ready to deal with any emergency. The most likely threat to your safety is that you are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Do not consider Erbil and the north as any safer than any other region of Iraq. As current events unfold, the whole country should be considered as extremely dangerous.

Preparation

Be physically and mentally prepared. Iraq still has extreme poverty and poor infrastructure means it is often difficult to get around.

In the summer it is scorching hot with temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade. Just living there will sap your energy if you are not used to it. Electricity often fails so be prepared for this and take a surge protector for if/when the generator kicks in.

Have a realistic risk assessment in place and a workable crisis management plan if things go wrong.

Ensure you have appropriate insurances in place prior to travel for your personal situation and ensure you have the appropriate inoculations for the region. Carry a basic medical kit with clean needles as hospitals tend to be poorly stocked.

Consider taking a dental care pack and ensure you have personal medication with you. Speak to your doctor as it may be worth taking additional medicines with you too in case you become unwell.

Ensure you know where the medical clinics and hospitals are and know how to get there in an emergency. Your drivers should know where they are as well.

It is advisable to have already worked in a hostile environment and to have attended a hostile environment course if you are going to cover this story. You should be familiar with wearing body armour and helmets and It is advisable to take both with you. Ensure you have the appropriate equipment with you for living and working in a hostile environment.

Research is key - know the background of the people and clearly understand the factions and their issues. English is not widely spoken outside of Baghdad. Travel outside Baghdad must be planned thoroughly with all eventualities taken into consideration. Consider taking two vehicles in case of breakdown.

Carry emergency funds and a spare copy of your ID in a concealed place such as a money belt. Have a 'give away' amount of cash ready to hand over at local checkpoints. Ensure you carry your passport with you at all times and have a grab bag ready.

Consider taking a satellite phone with you in case the authorities switch off the mobile phone networks or you are working outside the network range, particularly in the north. Keep emergency phone numbers to hand and programmed into satellite and mobile phones, with a key number you can reach 24/7 on speed dial if possible.

Travelling to Baghdad

Getting into Iraq and immigration (Baghdad International Airport)

Iraq is Arabic speaking but English is often understood in the large hotels and restaurants. You cannot get Iraqi dinars at the airport, so take US dollars with you. It is worth changing some dollars into dinars when you get there.

Most international travellers need a visa, which you must get prior to arrival in country. You can get a visa from the Iraqi embassy. You will need a sponsor in the country and you will need to apply for a media permit.

When you land, you will need to fill in a landing card. Bear in mind your own personal security when travelling: be careful about using personal addresses; try to use a work address if possible.

The toilets in the airport are still often without toilet paper and running water. Take your own toilet roll and hand wash.

Those of you who have visas or don’t need visas can go straight through passport control. You may need to show your letter of invitation, so have this ready.

Your luggage

Your luggage gets delivered on belts on the other side of passport control, after your passport has been stamped. You may have to put your hand luggage through an X-ray machine as you arrive and then again when you get your hold baggage. If you get a trolley it will help keep all your baggage together.

Transport from the airport

Ensure that you have transport prearranged and with a trusted source - do not be tempted to get a taxi. It is not advisable to sort out transport when you arrive. The airport is a secure zone and most armed security teams wait at the perimeter for clients as weapons are not allowed into the secure zone.

As journalists, your options are to be picked up by your fixer in a low key local car and be discreet when driving into the city, or to use an international company which will provide you with either high profile security or low key security, either armed or unarmed. You must make this decision after careful consideration in your risk assessment process.

Television crews/cameras always attract attention. Filming in the streets is only safe for around 20-30 minutes depending on where you are in the city and having local discreet security can help you gauge this, however a good trusted fixer may be able to do the same.

The BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) road, which runs from the airport to the international zone, is often declared as ‘safe’, however security incidents on the road are common.

Accommodation

There are numerous hotels in Baghdad, and their standards of security vary.

Ensure you use protected hotels, which have been verified as safe by colleagues or security advisers. The safest place to stay is in secure accommodation run by an international organisation with properly trained and reliable armed security guards. Some news organisations run these facilities and you can hire accommodation for the time you are there.

If you chose to stay in a hotel, try to get one which has been recommended by other journalists and one which has had a security assessment conducted on it. Ask for advice in choosing it. You should ensure that it has armed protection and a robust security entry system i.e. X-ray machines and personal body checks.

Be circumspect as to whom you tell your travel plans and be vigilant when moving from your accommodation.

If you are not sure about the security of your accommodation, ensure that the security guards remain awake at night by checking on them yourself. If they are not awake, move to somewhere where the security is better.

Consider how to secure your valuables if your hotel safe does not work. There are mobile safes on the market, so consider using them. If you need to look presentable when you first arrive and you have an early start, pack a travel iron. Your hotel may not offer a 24 hour housekeeping service.

Food and water

It is possible to visit restaurants, but check with your fixer that the one you want to visit is safe and has no security issues attached to it. Keep your plans to yourself and don’t hang around outside the venue. Be wary of telling people where you are staying.

Assume the water is not drinkable and ensure you use bottled water for drinking.

Moving around Iraq

Consider registering your arrival in country with your own embassy or consulate, so they have you on file as being in the country.

Make sure you understand what the latest security picture is by speaking with your fixer.

If travelling by road, use a safe and responsible driver with knowledge of the terrain and trouble spots. Keep speeds down.

It is inadvisable to identify your vehicle as media. Ensure your vehicle is well prepared if going out of Baghdad, with plenty of fuel. In hot conditions check tyre pressures regularly as a blow-out can be disastrous. Know how to change a tyre and ensure the spare tyre is roadworthy. Make sure your vehicle has a spare and equipment to change a tyre.

Ensure you carry enough water for your trip as the heat can be overwhelming.

Seek the advice of local authorities and residents about possible dangers before travelling.

Inform your editor/base location of where you are going, your intended time of departure and expected return. Do not be tempted to travel at night.

Do not be tempted to carry a weapon or travel with journalists who do.

Travelling to Basra

Although it has always been considered safer, Basra is just as dangerous as Baghdad. Do not underestimate the city.

ID and Media Permits are a necessity as there are frequent police checks. If police spot a Westerner in a vehicle it is likely that they will stop the car and want to see papers. Police and security forces are on most streets in the city centre and will want to check your papers if you are travelling on foot as well.

At Basra International Airport, all your bags are checked at every stage - going in and going out of customs,coming into the gates of the airport and going in to the airport building. Ensure you have prearranged transport from the airport. If not, you will have to get a taxi from the airport to the 'dust-bowl' to pick up other transport and you may be fleeced. This may also heighten your profile.

If you have organised security, the more reputable companies may insist that you need an armoured vehicle in the city.  At the end of 2012 this was not necessary, however you should check this prior to your travel.


Note: The views here are those of the author and are personal reflections and safety advice. They are meant to assist anyone in the media to be prepared to work in Iraq and are not meant to be negative in nature. If they cause offence to anyone, sincerest apologies are offered in advance. INSI holds no responsibility for any ensuing problems, bodily harm or death in relation to this advice.

Photo: A street scene in Baghdad, Iraq (AP Photo)