Iraqis Rush for Exit Visas; Few May Get Out : Travel: Strict conditions and red tape confront those hoping to leave their war-torn country.


A merchant said he wants to go to the Jordanian port of Aqaba to check an embargoed shipment of clothing and buttons. A young engineer hopes to visit uncles in Lebanon.

On Wednesday, the first day Iraqis could apply for visas to leave their beleaguered country, the capital's passport offices were busy.

No Iraqi has been permitted to travel abroad since the outbreak of the Persian Gulf crisis last August, and none but emergency medical cases were permitted out during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. The cosmopolitan Iraqi upper classes chafed under the restrictions, and, clearly, many from all walks of life here want to escape the suffocating security regaining its grip.

Yanan Hiyali, a 70-year-old physician, said most of Iraq's Christian minority, many with relatives in Michigan and California, want to leave. "I think you know why," he told a reporter.

But the promise of free travel made by President Saddam Hussein's government two weeks ago appeared Wednesday to be dimmed by bureaucratic confusion and onerous requirements. Foreign reporters covering the rush for applications found themselves answering more questions than asking.

"Do you think the United States will give me a visa?" asked a young doctor. "How much is the flight from Jordan to Frankfurt?" wondered another applicant.

With no planes flying from Baghdad and few embassies open, those receiving exit permits will make the 12-hour drive to Amman, Jordan, and begin the rounds of foreign consulates seeking visas for onward travel. Many may get no farther.

Even reaching Amman presents problems. Travelers are not permitted to take any money out. In order to leave, men between the ages of 18 and 45 have to present proof that they have done military service. Travelers using personal cars must leave some sort of collateral guarantee that the car will be returned to Iraq.

Iraqis say the restrictions have spawned a mini-industry of smugglers who will move cash across the Jordanian border. "No one would risk taking it out themselves," said a well-to-do woman at the passport office in the Zaiyuna neighborhood.

The surest source of financial support are relatives living abroad who can wire funds to Amman. Prospective travelers have been sending letters through Red Cross channels to notify uncles and cousins of their needs.

Despite the hurdles, one well-placed source estimated that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis will try to leave. Most of those questioned in Zaiyuna said they expect to return, a pledge the foreign consuls in Amman will examine skeptically. Others said they are applying for exit permits "just in case" and have no immediate plans to travel.

In the last window for travel overseas--from February to August last year--the majority of applicants were Christians, an industrious community of more than 800,000 who are more likely than the Muslim majority to have the money for the trip. And frankly, said one Christian cleric, his people want to continue making money, which won't be easy in the war-battered Iraqi economy.

Because of the bureaucratic hassles, however, it may be some time before any Iraqi is able to leave.

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