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War-scarred Iraq launches tourism drive

Sends delegation to industry fair for first time in decade

Babylon, Sinbad, the Garden of Eden -- war-scarred Iraq touted its attractions for tourists Tuesday, as it sent a delegation to a major industry fair for the first time in decade.

Iraqi tourism officials said "very few pockets" of the country remain dangerous, more than six years after the controversial US-led invasion which ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

But the complications of travel to and from Baghdad were underlined when the Iraqi officials were delayed reaching the World Travel Market event in London, due to visa problems.

"It is our first participation to a travel fair in Europe for more than a decade," delegation spokesman Hasan Al-Fayadh told AFP by telephone from Amman, where they were waiting for the paperwork to be resolved.

Iraq -- where violence has fallen but continues, including a double suicide bombing that killed over 150 last month -- is a well-known destination for religious travel for Muslims from near neighbors like Iran, Pakistan, Bahrain or India.

"But our strategy now is to attract people from other parts of the world, like Europe, North America and Asia, after the security situation has improved," the spokesman added.

Key tourist draws include Babylon, less than 100 kilometers from Baghdad; the ancient city of Ur, the Biblical birthplace of Abraham; and the southern port of Basra, from which Sinbad set sail in "One Thousand and One Nights".

According to some historians, the Garden of Eden is 80 kilometers north of Basra, said the Iraqi delegation in a statement. "With 5,000 years of history, Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilization."

Playing down security fears, Fayadh said the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq is "very good, in the south also," adding: "In the central part of the country, Karbala and other places are now safer, and in Baghdad.

"Most of the city is safe. Very few pockets are still dangerous," he added, noting also that Iraqi Airways is due to start a direct London-Baghdad route later this month.

But our strategy now is to attract people from other parts of the world, like Europe, North America and Asia, after the security situation has improved

Delegation spokesman Hasan Al-Fayadh