The Bush administration has lifted a 12-year-old ban on the use of U.S. passports for travel to Iraq in a move officials say is part of an effort to restore normalcy to the country. However, Americans are still being strongly warned against any early travel to Iraq.
Officials here say the lifting of the travel ban will make it easier for the growing number of Americans with official business in Iraq, including contractors involved in reconstruction projects, to come and go from the country.
But they are cautioning that Iraq remains a dangerous place and that it will still be some time before conditions will allow casual travel and tourism.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage signed off on the order lifting the passport ban, which had been in effect since the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991.
However, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the announcement is being accompanied by a new U.S. travel warning reminding potential visitors that the security threat remains high.
"Although the restrictions on the U.S. passports have been lifted, travel to Iraq remains dangerous," he said. "I think you're all aware of the various attacks that have occurred, almost on a daily basis, from remnants of the Baathist regime, from terrorists or criminal elements that remain active in Iraq. We have limited, very limited, consular services. The situation is generally dangerous, and therefore we strongly warn against such travel."
The State Department had authorized exceptions to the travel ban since major hostilities in Iraq were declared over in early May to allow visits by Congressional delegations and others.
But until Tuesday, it had been illegal for private U.S. citizens other than bona fide journalists on assignment in Iraq to use their U.S. passports to visit the country.
The United States has not yet set up an embassy in Baghdad, and Mr. Boucher said only a single U.S. consular officer is currently in the capital to provide consular services to American visitors.
While stressing the continuing danger to travelers, Mr. Boucher said conditions in Iraq had "changed demonstrably" since before the fall of Saddam Hussein, when he said U.S. visitors could have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured, or used as human shields.
A senior diplomat here said U.S. administrators are working hard to normalize the situation in Iraq and expect that the Baghdad airport will reopen to scheduled flights soon.
With Tuesday's action, only Libya, which has been off-limits to American travelers since 1981, remains under a full passport ban, though some U.S. travel restrictions are in place against several other countries including North Korea, Cuba and Iran.