Things must have improved because yesterday the first group of western package tourists to visit Iraq's capital and second city finally arrived in Baghdad - tired, uninsured and a little exasperated, but happy - after a 17-day tour that would have been unthinkable 12 months ago.
On the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the irony was compelling: the last group of western foreigners to arrive outside the Sheraton hotel in Baghdad were invading US marines. Six years on, the assembled group of four Britons, a Russian who lives in London, two Americans and a Canadian wielded nothing more menacing than suitcases and dogeared tourism guides.
The adventurers arrived exhausted after a 10-hour road trip from Basra, which itself had its highs (three stops at noted sites of ancient Mesopotamia) and its lows (no fewer than 40 checkpoints).
Bridgett Jones, a retired civil servant in her 70s, had longed to see the ancient site of Ur, deemed by historians as a cradle of civilisation, ever since a stint 55 years ago at the Near Eastern Institute of Archeology in London.
With Jones was a retired postmaster turned entrepreneur from Northumberland, Gordon Moore, 75, and Tina Townsend-Greaves, 36, a civil servant from Yorkshire. All had been on at least one pioneering tour before, to either Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, or the Kurdish north of Iraq, with the same travel company, Hinterland Travel.
"I thought I would see a lot more damage," said Townsend-Greaves. "I have travelled to Afghanistan and there were rusting tanks everywhere. Here it's plastic bags and concrete blocks." En route to Baghdad, the group visited the tomb of the Hebrew prophet Ezra, about 40 miles north of Basra. Iraq is peppered with reminders that it is a fabled land to more than one monotheistic faith.
The tour was organised by Geoff Hann, who has been bringing groups to Iraq since the 1970s. He was last in Baghdad in October 2003 before returning for a travel conference late last year, then deciding security had improved enough to risk another tour.
Most clients were retired people with an abiding interest in the culture, rather than would-be war tourists, he said.
"Dealing with the former government was probably more ordered," he said when asked to compare than and now. "As long as you did what Saddam's guards asked you to, you were fine."
Checkpoints and delays aside, life in the new Iraq has had other frustrations. A trip to the National Museum was cancelled late on Friday without any explanation. The party said they felt like pawns in a power play between feuding government departments which are still grappling with the novelty of foreign tourists.
"What can I do about it?" shrugged their Iraqi Tourism Board minder, Saadi Kashaf. "They wanted to go to some of the dangerous places, like Mosul and Samaraand.
"I got them there," he added.
Kashaf said the government hoped to lure more tourists. But at a minimum of £1,900 for 17 days, Iraq is a long way from being on the budget tour list.
The 17-day trip starts in Baghdad and takes in Samarra and Hatra before heading north to Irbil, in Kurdistan. After another stop-off in Baghdad the trail heads south to the shrines at Kerbala and Najaf. Southern sites covered include the ancient city of Ur, the fourth-millennium site of Uruk, and the old Marsh Arab area. There is a two-day interlude in Basra before the return to Baghdad.
This probably isn't for those who get upset at shoddy accommodation. Hinterland travel makes no secret of it: "Hotels have been badly treated by all concerned so our tour will be very varied in the quality of hotels that we can use," it says. The next tour is scheduled for April.
Day 2 Damascus
Day 3 Damascus to Baghdad (flight)
Day 4 Baghdad
Day 5 Baghdad-Samarra-Hatra-Irbil
Day 6 Irbil excursions
Day 7 Irbil-Nimrud, Mar Benham-Assur-Baghdad
Day 8 Baghdad excursions
Day 9 Baghdad-Ctesiphon-Babylon-Bordippa-Hilla
Day 10 Hilla-Kish-Ukheider-Kerbala
Day 11 Kerbala-El Khifal-Kufa-Najaf
Day 12 Najaf-Nippur-Warka (Uruk)-Larsa-Nasiriya
Day 13 Nasiriya-Ur-Eridu-Tel Ubaid-Nasiriya
Day 14 Marsh area to Basra
Day 15 Basra with excursions
Day 16 Basra to Baghdad by plane or train
Day 17 Baghdad-Damascus-London