Change in Iraqi province obvious in rare drive

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 7, 2007 

TIRBIL, Iraq — The Iraqi soldier at the last checkpoint before the Jordanian border stared at my passport incredulously. He couldn't write "American" in the log. There hadn't been an American at this checkpoint in years.

"Are you Iraqi?" he asked.

"No," I answered.

"What are you?" he asked, confused.

"I'm American," I answered, and when that still wasn't enough I added, "I'm Lebanese also."

He wrote down "Lebanese."

A few months ago, no American would have been foolish enough to do what I had just done: drive from Baghdad west through Iraq's Anbar province, long the hotbed of the country's Sunni Muslim insurgency, and into Jordan. The route was notorious for hijackings, kidnappings and roadside bombs, and passed some of the best-known symbols of the country's mayhem: Abu Ghraib, Hamdaniyah, Fallujah, Ramadi and beyond.

But western Iraq has changed, and the drive last Sunday was proof of that.

Not once in the seven hours that it took to travel the 360 miles or so was there a threatening moment. The concrete barriers that used to block traffic along the road at al Haswa and then later at al Rutba — so insurgents and bandits could assault cars more easily — had been shoved into the median. Traffic flowed quickly and smoothly.

The biggest obstacles were huge convoys of cargo trucks, escorted by American Humvees, that forced detours across sand and rocks to older side roads. Not long ago such a detour would have been unthinkable.

To be sure, Anbar, with its largely Sunni population, doesn't represent other parts of Iraq, where Sunni-Shiite rivalries are deadly. One road doesn't reveal the secrets of every village. A car ride doesn't allow reporting on allegations of rising police brutality. And not all signs of change were upbeat.

Outside Baghdad we drove past the huge area where cargo is passed between trucks as Sunni and Shiite Muslim drivers help one another avoid the fierce sectarianism that's killed thousands. At Fallujah we saw the enormous parking lot where residents now must leave their cars before entering the city, a restriction intended to deter car bombs.

At al Sicher near Fallujah, a string of gutted buildings once held shops whose owners were accused of helping al Qaida in Iraq. We passed the home of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the Anbar tribal leader who'd allied with the United States last year and died when his car was bombed last month. A U.S. tank and four Humvees were parked in front of the house.

After miles in the desert we stopped at a small restaurant in al Rutba where the name Bush was painted in white in three different spots in the parking lot, so customers could step on it. All along the route, the burned bodies of trucks and cars littered the roadside. Not seen were the hundreds of thousands of Sunnis who've fled here from Baghdad to escape Shiite militias

The trip wasn't without precautions and trepidation. We went in the daylight hours, when we thought it least likely that Sunni extremists or Shiites from the Mahdi Army militia would have set up fake checkpoints.

I wasn't allowed to speak to anyone, lest my accented Arabic tip someone to my nationality. Lifting a camera when people were nearby earned a rebuke from my companions. When an interview subject in Ramadi didn't pick up the phone, we moved on rather than wait around and risk being found out.

At the Jordanian border we sighed with relief.

In Baghdad, I'd secured my hair in a scarf and sat in the front seat with the driver, posing as an Iraqi family.

From central Baghdad, we passed through some of the capital's most conflicted areas: Bayaa, where Shiite militiamen have almost completed their purge of Sunni residents; Ghazaliyeh, where one street separates Sunnis and Shiites; Ameriyah, where Sunni revolutionists are fighting to drive out al Qaida in Iraq; and Shuala, a Mahdi Army-controlled neighborhood on the west bank of the Tigris River.

Blast walls, ugly concrete planks that tower above one's head, lined the road for miles. Were they protecting us from the neighborhoods, or the neighborhoods from us?

A green sign invited us to drive toward Fallujah and Ramadi on what's known as the international highway, and for the first time in years, we did.

Just after American troops toppled Saddam Hussein, the road through Anbar, the vast province that takes up one-third of Iraq, had been the only way to the capital for foreigners. There was no air service.

Even in those early months, the lawless power vacuum made the drive harrowing, and many Westerners were hijacked and robbed of their cash and equipment. As the insurgency grew, the road became all but impassable, even for Iraqis. Insurgent groups dominated, the 1920 Revolution Brigade in Abu Ghraib, on Baghdad's western outskirts, al Qaida in Iraq in much of Anbar. Kidnappings, roadside bombs and ambushes were the order of the day.

Now, with Sunni tribal militias in full revolt against al Qaida in Iraq and elements of the 1920 Revolution Brigade allied with the Americans, what would we find?

Just before Abu Ghraib, infamous for torture at a U.S. detention center, vendors lined the road with plastic cans of gasoline, waiting for desperate travelers to refill their tanks.

Past the makeshift markets came the truck exchange. Red and white 18-wheelers lined the roadside as drivers exchanged goods. Cargo headed to Sunni areas went to Sunni drivers, and Shiite drivers took goods headed for Shiite areas.

We sped on. On the left rose the Abu Ghraib prison, beige walls fading into the desert landscape. Iraqi soldiers lounged at their posts, shielded from the 90-degree heat by green tarps.

We passed Hamdaniyah, where American soldiers allegedly rousted an Iraqi farmer from bed in 2005, took him into a field and shot him dead, then planted a shovel and an AK-47 near his corpse.

At Fallujah, where U.S. Marines fought two bloody battles, hundreds of cars were parked off to the right. Vehicles have been banned from the city for months.

Scores of residents were walking to the security checkpoint, where after pat-downs and body scans they can hope to catch cabs or mini-buses among the 200 specially licensed commercial vehicles allowed to circulate in the city.

One woman stepped out of a car and held her baby girl, covered in a pink wrap. On the other side of the road a family of eight emerged holding hands and searching for a ride.

We drove on. Abu Risha's men had leveled the car-repair and gasoline shops at al Sichir, leaving only their concrete skeletons. The owners, they said, had been warning al Qaida insurgents of potential prey on the road.

In Ramadi, we were supposed to meet with Abu Risha's older brother and successor, but when he didn't pick up the phone, we left, driving past the family's pink house with white columns near where Abu Risha died. A U.S. tank and Humvees stood guard.

The highway then stretched for miles of dusty desert. Sometimes we veered onto access roads to avoid huge convoys of trucks, often with American military escorts. In one I counted 202 vehicles.

We passed the town of Garma, where al Qaida in Iraq is still battling, and saw at least five destroyed bridges. Toppled electricity towers could be seen on both sides of the road.

At al Rutba, a poor town about 80 miles from the border, we stopped to eat at the Grill Restaurant, the only restaurant for hours.

Many Muslims don't fast while traveling during the holy month of Ramadan, and the restaurant was busy with families eating kebabs and taking bathroom breaks. Little girls ran through the restaurant and drivers stocked up on junk food and water. Outside in the lot, men knelt in prayer, and cars and trucks passed over the word "Bush" painted on the parking lot.

The lot held several SUVs, which families rent for about $800 and pack with their belongings for the drive out of Iraq. The ones here would turn right in a few miles and head for Syria, which still lets fleeing Iraqis enter. Jordan has shut the door.

That was clear when we reached the border. Two lines were labeled at the crossing: "Iraqi" and "Arab and foreigners." Only three civilian cars had come that day. I was the only foreigner.

It was the only time all day when things grew tense. A Jordanian customs agent uncovered a turba, a small, round hardened piece of clay that Shiites rest their foreheads on when they pray. He threw it with disrespect. "This is that thing you pray on," he said.

Then he saw my passport and grew quiet. He called over another officer. They went through the car, and asked about every business card in my purse. They searched for an Iraq connection.

"Is your father Iraqi, your grandmother, your great-grandfather?" I shook my head no. They let me through.

Later, I got an e-mail from Mohammed about his return trip to Baghdad.

"We drove all the way back at night and there were hundreds of trucks and many passenger vehicles on the road," he wrote. "We arrived at Fallujah about 1 a.m. and continued to Baghdad in the morning.

"The road was beautiful to drive at night and we stopped at the same restaurant. It was crowded with families (note many girls were unveiled and wearing jeans)."

That last comment was punctuated with a smiley face.

(Fadel was accompanied on the trip by McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy and McClatchy staff driver Hussein Ali.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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