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Iraq Interior Ministry Starts Issuing Passports - 2003-10-29

Iraqis have been lining up for hours and sometimes days in front of the interior ministry to get their hands on something that, just a few months ago, seemed impossible - documents that will allow them to travel abroad.

The scene in front of a branch office in Baghdad of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior can only be described as pandemonium. But at the same time, it is another glimpse of Iraq's new-found freedom.

Hundreds of people, forming a crowd so thick passage through it would be impossible, press against each other and wave their hands in the air excitedly shouting that their turn is next.

These people are applying for passports and new travel documents that will allow them to visit other countries.

This would not be possible under the former regime of Saddam Hussein. The reason is simple.

Under the former regime, getting such documents required large sums of money and, often, years of waiting. For anyone who worked for the government, traveling outside of Iraq was not allowed.

Dr. May Marzina, a pediatrician, had just won her battle in the huge crowd and smiled as she clutched her crisp application form for her travel documents. She plans to visit her brother in the Netherlands whom she hasn't seen in 10 years. She says that in the past, doctors were prohibited from traveling abroad, so getting travel documents was impossible.

"It was very difficult to get," said Ms. Marzina. "You have many papers to make sure that you have no relation with the government or you can't travel. I am a doctor. I have to resign to travel outside."

But this month the future for Iraqis changed when the interior ministry began offering applications for travel outside of Iraq. And each day thousands of Iraqis wait in huge, noisy crowds to get their hands on those applications.

On this particular day, Taleb Abdou Mehni was successful. He says he is thrilled because he can now afford to travel.

Mr. Mehni says it has always been his wish to get a visa and says he is very excited. Mr. Mehni said that when Saddam Hussein was in power, travel documents cost as much as $500. In Iraq, the average yearly salary was about $2,400. Now, Mr. Mehni says the documents cost just a few dollars. In a matter of days, Mr. Mehni will have the documents he needs to visit his cousin in France.

The ministry of interior says it processes several thousand applications each day.

And judging by the size of the crowds in front of the ministry's offices, it will continue to do so for many days to come.