body#layout #main-top { display:none; } -->

Saturday, 7 February 2009

"I am a tourist"

"I am a tourist" were his first words. The telephone line from Falluja was bad, but there could be no mistake. Possibly Iraq's, and certainly Falluja's, first Western leisure visitor was in town.

Not for long though. A guard at a checkpoint caught sight of Luca Marchio among the Iraqi passengers on a bus that was heading from Baghdad to the once-notorious - and still tense - western city and alerted his superiors.

Marchio, 33, a native of Como, Italy, soon found himself in the Falluja police headquarters surrounded by bewildered officers trying to make out why a Westerner would wander around their city without a translator or guards. Marchio may have worried the police, but his main concern was saving money.

In two telephone conversations with journalists, he brushed away concerns for his safety and offers of help. "I am a tourist," he said. "I want to see the most important cities in the country. That is the reason why I am here now.

"I want to see and understand the reality, because I have never been here before and I think every country in the world must be seen. I was looking for cheap accommodation here in Falluja, but the authorities explained to me that it was impossible because there are not any hotels here. They suggested a short tour and then go back to Baghdad."

Piecing together his unusual travel itinerary from an unperturbed Marchio, and incredulous Iraqi and Italian officials - and viewing a copy of his passport and visa from the Coral Palace Hotel in Baghdad - tells a strange story.

After being made aware of his presence in the country by The New York Times, the Italian Embassy in Baghdad established that Marchio had traveled overland from Italy to Egypt to Turkey and then into northern Iraq. A photocopy of his passport shows that he obtained a 10-day visa and crossed the border from Turkey to the Kurdish region of Iraq. More