London Times – War And Tourists Don’t Mix
By Tom Cheshyre
An American abducted in Iraq last month is one of a band of travellers who get their kicks from visiting dangerous places. Tom Chesshyre reports on their gung-ho world
AN AMERICAN tourist who visited Iraq last month and claims he was abducted and questioned by Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Muslim cleric based in Najaf, has been criticised for visiting a war zone.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against “all but the most essential travel to Iraq”, highlighting the threat of kidnapping. A spokeswoman commented: “Speaking personally, there’s no way I’d have gone there.”
Daniel Smith, 31, a part-time piano technician from New Haven in Connecticut, spent two and a half weeks in Iraq in late June and July. He claims in a journal published today on http://www.polosbastards.com/, a website on which travellers to dangerous places exchange stories, that he was abducted while taking pictures of a mosque in Kufa on July 6.
Smith says he was taken to a back room where he was interrogated by a group of men, who opened all his electronic devices including his watch to check for recording devices, then drove him past security checkpoints into Najaf, where he was led to al-Sadr.
The rebel cleric, who Smith describes as a “soft-spoken, gentle-seeming man (with) piercing eyes”, checked the pictures in his digital camera and asked if Smith was from the CIA.
Smith says that al-Sadr signed a poster with the cleric pictured on it, before shaking hands with him. He then returned to his hotel in his taxi. The whole episode took about five hours.
Catherine Arnold, author of Baghdad, a guidebook due to be published by Bradt next month, said that Smith’s story sounded credible, but added that tourists should not visit Iraq at the moment.
Arnold, who has worked on the Baghdad Bulletin, a local newspaper, received assistance with her guidebook from James Brandon, the Sunday Telegraph journalist kidnapped for 18 hours last week. She said: “Kidnapping is a constant concern in Iraq. Even if you are very sensible, as James was, there are risks.”
She advises against going to Iraq and said that her guidebook is aimed at people “visiting the country in a professional capacity” — although it does include limited information on history and on sights.
It also contains security tips such as sitting away from windows in restaurants or cafés (to avoid shattered glass from bomb blasts), drawing curtains in hotel rooms at night, choosing rooms that are either on low storeys or at the top of hotels (as most rocket-propelled grenades are fired at mid-storey windows), and keeping a low profile.
Robert Young Pelton, the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, who was himself kidnapped and held for ten days by right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia last year, said: “My job is to encourage people to look past the media blather about countries being unvisitable and to give the truth about how safe it is to visit.