Iraq is probably the most dangerous region in the Arab World and should be avoided. Visitors are prepared into travelling into a war zone.
Even people who have always lived in Iraq and who are uninvolved with political issues are often subject to kidnapping-for-profit also often used for political reasons, which can be fatal if a ransom is not paid. The ransom price is very high and few governments will pay it.
Iraq is beset with numerous problems that make travelling risky and difficult. The security situation is perilous in just about any area of the country, and continues to deteriorate under continuing terrorist attacks. Resistance to continuing military occupation, U.S. and UK forces, and Iraqi military, police or anyone associated with the Iraqi government, as well as increasing factional and sectarian conflict make street warfare, bombings, and other acts of armed violence daily occurrences.
The central third of the country is the most volatile; the southern ports are less dangerous, but only relatively so. However, northern Iraq, or Kurdistan is safe and has suffered from very little violence since 2003. Major cities, including Baghdad, are fertile grounds for political upheavals, kidnappings, and other underground activity, so tread lightly. The Kurdish peshmerga military is over 100,000 strong and every road, town, city and even village has checkpoints going in and out. All non-Kurds are searched thoroughly and occasionally followed by the internal secret police. However fear not, this is why there is almost no chance of terrorism in the North. The police are friendly and everyone is happy to meet foreigners, especially Americans.
Traveling alone makes you an easy kidnapping target, and is best avoided – if possible travel with a translator/guard. There are comprehensive private and state security services available for your personal protection - you are strongly advised to use the available options for your own safety. If employed in Iraq, consult your employer on how to handle your personal safety. Independent contractors will usually have security provided by their clients, if no security is provided you should seriously consider not traveling to Iraq, if you must go you should hire armed security and get proper training in appropriate protective gear, survival, and weapons.
Be aware that Iraq, like any war zone, has minefields everywhere, do not walk into fields, especially marked ones unless you're absolutely sure that it's safe. In short, do not go anywhere without escort from the Iraqi army.
It is not safe for short term visitors to drink the water anywhere in Iraq. It is best to always drink bottled water, preferably made by a Western or Jordanian company. It will usually be sold at vendors and large stores, and will be easy to find. Most Iraqi water companies pump their water directly from the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, treat it with ozone, and then filter it into bottles. The taste is often not very good, and those with sensitive systems should not drink it. Many street vendors will offer drinks such as water with a lemon twist, which should be presumed unsafe for foreign visitors.
Those with experience in Iraq should use their discretion and past experience when purchasing drinks.
Drinking the local tea chai can be safe for some people since it is brought to a boil before serving, but when in doubt, insist that bottled water be used. Many kinds of water-borne disease, pollution, and infectious agents are not affected by boiling of water, and are still present in the water after boiling.
As a walk past an Iraqi butcher shop will demonstrate, food preparation standards are not the same as in Western countries, and consumption of local food can make a visitor ill. Try to bring your own. As tap water is generally not potable, you should especially avoid uncooked foods.
Should you find your body in the uncomfortable position of rejecting food and water due to something you shouldn't have drunk, immediately find someone who speaks Arabic and send them to a local pharmacist and request a product known locally as "InterStop" similar to co-phenotrope/Lomotil. This works better than any well-known western brands.
Never show the soles of your feet to others. This may be considered very disrespectful by most Iraqis, unless you are in the company of friends. When in the company of friends, it's still best to excuse yourself before putting your feet up in the air with the soles of your feet in the direction of any person.
Don't spit in public or in the direction of others, even when obviously done without malice.
Arabic is the national language of Iraq, but English is so commonly spoken there that most travelers will get by in the various shops, markets and cafes. The downside is that speaking English will immediately identify you as an outsider. This is dangerous because of the strong underground network of Iraqis who inform attackers of possible target opportunities.
Kurdish is spoken in the Kurdistan region, in one of two varieties: Kurmanji and Sorani. Kurmanji is spoken in and around Dohuk while Sorani is spoken in and around Arbil Hewlar and Sulaymaniyah. These two varieties are mutually unintelligible. However, Arabic is also widely spoken, and the number of speakers of English is on the rise.