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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Many find air travel stressful, but in Iraq, finding a way around armed and nervous-looking U.S. troops blocking the airport road is only one of many headaches.
Until it was taken down last week, Baghdad International Airport's defunct information board displayed non-existent flights to unlikely destinations including Mexico City, Moscow, Warsaw and Helsinki -- mostly put there by airport staff with a sense of humour.
From booking tickets to catching your plane, flying out of Baghdad is usually a nightmare. But as violence has fallen in Iraq, more airlines are opening routes to the country and more Iraqis are clamoring for trips abroad, travel agents say.
"Last year we weren't even open because the security was bad. Now it's good, and I can employ six people," said Al-Hijaz travel's Mehdi Daoud, who with other travel agents estimated ticket sales had risen 15 to 35 percent in the last six months.
Last month Turkish Airlines started direct flights between Baghdad and Istanbul, adding to existing flights from Baghdad to Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Amman, Tehran and Dubai.
Travel agent Hussein Basim said demand from Iraqis for foreign travel had remained constant, but more airlines were adding flights, boosting sales. "We're always busy. We've had great demand but there have not been planes," he said.
But buying a ticket is not easy. There are no online sales, and bookings and availability enquiries are haphazard and rely on the use of paper ledgers. Return dates for some trips are a gamble, as the return leg can only be arranged abroad.
"It's not easy to book a ticket. It's taken me four days. There's no system at all -- it's awful. I have so many questions," said Khalil Waleed, hoping to travel to Belarus.
Unfortunately for Waleed, flying abroad for the first time, his difficulties are unlikely to end there.
On a recent trip to the airport, a U.S. military convoy blocked the road, and a soldier in a gun turret trained his sights on vehicles full of Iraqis eager to catch their flight. Eventually cars went off the road to skirt the convoy.
Even before entering the airport there are two searches, after which the real confusion begins.
Ticketed flight times are ignored, and a lack of information screens forces passengers to strain for muffled announcements and rely on rumors for times and gates.
Passengers stampede from one gate to another waving tickets as Dubai flight number one is confused with flight number two.
During long years of war and sanctions, many Iraqis never flew abroad. For some of those now traveling, the trip is a desperate bid for asylum or refugee status abroad, heightening the tension.
"Have some shame! Are we barbarians? You're ruining the image of Iraqis," shouted some passengers on a trip to Istanbul, as many travelers near-wrestled each other to ensure they had a place on the plane.
"The confidence of the people isn't there yet ... I see this reflected in all fields in Iraq. People think they will not get their rights unless they fight," passenger Abu Ali said.
On board, ticket seating is usually ignored, and family members or groups of women rush to sit next to each other. Headscarved women contrast with the large number of muscled and tattooed Western security contractors on most flights.
Some Iraqis try to avoid sitting near them -- they are often accused of working above the law and of killing innocent people.
But on one flight a contractor with a tattooed scalp allowed a boy behind him to playfully slap his head, to the amusement of the boy's parents. The man explained the meaning of his tattoos.
"Mixing is important," said travel agent Basim. "We have had a bloody catastrophe here. Through travel Iraqis can learn about different customs and cultures. It teaches people humanity."
Editing by Dominic Evans