Iraqis question U.S. convoy's driving in fatal crash

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2010 

HILLAH, Iraq — Dazed and blood-spattered, Badriya Hussein whispered prayers Wednesday over the blanket-covered bodies of her relatives on a highway south of Baghdad, where a U.S. military convoy that was traveling in the wrong lane had hit a passenger van.

She looked at the stricken American soldiers standing nearby.

"Why?" she asked. "Why?"

Minutes after the crash, the 18-ton armored personnel carrier — a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle — that struck the van was on its side, smoldering and with one side partially sheared off. The van was a mangled, bloody pile of wreckage with debris strewn for yards in every direction.

Iraqi forces and witnesses at the scene said the American convoy was on the wrong side of the road when the crash killed five members of Hussein's family and injured seven more Iraqis and three American soldiers.

Iraqi Traffic Police Capt. Ahmed Mohamed Abdul Wahab, who oversees the area where the accident occurred, said he'd witnessed about 10 other fatal military-civilian collisions in the past three years involving U.S. forces driving on the wrong side of the road.

U.S. Army Maj. Chris Reese, a spokesman for the 41st Infantry Brigade, which is part of the Oregon Army National Guard, said the real story was awful, but more nuanced.

The 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team convoy was going against traffic, but only on a short curve as part of the standard practice of swinging around an Iraqi checkpoint at a designated place, he said. The passenger van also appeared to be going in the wrong direction, Reese said, perhaps in an attempt to cross the median.

"Everything you build on for two or three years can be destroyed in an accident, which is what we didn't want to happen," Reese said, adding that the soldiers who were involved in the incident were distraught by the civilian deaths. An hour later, down the same stretch of highway, an unrelated roadside bomb hit the same convoy, but it inflicted no casualties or major damage.

"They had a horrible day," Reese said.

After the crash, two U.S. medical helicopters swooped down and took away the three wounded Americans and the critical Iraqi cases. Americans rushed to fill the Iraqis' requests for body bags.

Abdul Wahab, the Iraqi traffic captain, strode up to American Army Sgt. Jon Bricker, who was part of the U.S. convoy. The men asked a McClatchy reporter to translate.

"Ask them, ask them! Why do they drive on the wrong side of the road?" Abdul Wahab demanded.

"Tell him, from me, that we are sorry," Bricker said, pain evident on his face.

"What's 'sorry'? They keep doing it, so what good is 'sorry'?" Abdul Wahab said.

"It's a terrible tragedy," Bricker said.

Abdul Wahab looked at the bodies and avoided eye contact with Bricker.

"There are no words," Bricker said.

The Iraqi captain walked away.

"These were ordinary people, a family," Abdul Wahab said over his shoulder, his face tight with grief.

A single accident such as Wednesday's can wipe out years of efforts to build better relations between Iraqis and Americans. Iraqi TV stations and international wire services immediately reported that Americans driving on the wrong side of the road had caused the fatal crash, with one channel inexplicably bumping the death toll to 19.

That rings true to Iraqis, all of whom seem to have stories about near misses with the hulking U.S. convoys that have ruled Iraq's roads for nearly seven years. The U.S. military says it's made a dramatic change in convoy procedures since last spring, shifting from U.S. "battle space ownership" to "battle space partnership" with Iraqis. Iraqi truck drivers, however, said that driving near an American convoy remained a harrowing experience.

"The Americans always use the wrong side of the road. They always behave like they're the only ones on the road, without respect for other vehicles," said Hameed Mohamed, a truck driver who transports construction materials up and down Iraq's highways.

"Who can stop them at checkpoints? Who can make them accountable? They respect neither the Iraqi police nor the military. If anyone crosses them, they shoot and don't care about the consequences, because what does it matter if one more Iraqi dies in the streets?"

(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article from Baghdad.)

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