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Danger still exists along main convoy to Baghdad

ROAD TO BAGHDAD, Iraq—At the front of 94 trucks bearing tanks and armored vehicles, Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Davey rode in a Humvee. He cradled an M-4 semi-automatic rifle. His job: help guard the convoy.

As the convoy rolled near an Iraqi border town, three Iraqi men in red-checkered head scarves and white robes held out paper money, apparently wanting to trade for dollars. Suddenly, the men stepped into the narrow roadway, blocking Davey's Humvee.

"Don't stop!" Davey barked to his driver. "They'll get out of the way." The men stepped back. They probably had good intentions, but Davey wouldn't take a chance.

The main convoy and supply route to Baghdad is what the Army calls "secure." Still, it is not completely safe. The war against the Iraqi military may be essentially over, but the convoys—lifelines for troops farther north—still have to be wary of people lining the route.

Children run toward the convoys. A man will hold up a bottle of Crown Royal or a Playboy centerfold, trying to entice passing soldiers.

But sometimes the convoys come under small arms fire. Occasionally, civilians throw rocks or try to grab packs off military vehicles. Soldiers know a convoy could be a large target for a suicide bomber.

Lt. Barbara Madray, with the 96th Transportation Group, based at Fort Hood, Texas, has led convoys for three months. She says the convoys still need people like Davey to provide security.

The good will along the route can be deceptive, she said. "They're holding money in one hand, but what's in the other? You never know who's the enemy. They've been known to use children."

At the same time, soldiers don't want to appear unfriendly. The challenge, said Army Maj. John Faria, is to "keep people at arm's length but in a respectful manner."

So Faria and Davey, part of a security detail provided by 1st Battalion, 13th Armor, based at Fort Riley, Kan., waved at people along the route Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The one-way trip takes about 24 hours, not including delays. A convoy truck pulling a 70-ton tank on a trailer can average only about 35 mph even on the highway.

The day after the convoy crossed into Iraq, Davey found himself in an impoverished town, outside his Humvee, surrounded by curious civilians. A transport truck had to stop because of flat trailer tire. Davey and his crew provided security while soldiers changed the tire.

One of the children swarming around Davey, shouted: "Good morning, how are you? What's your name?"

"My name is Sergeant," Davey answered, amused.

"My name is Ahmad," the boy said, his brown eyes shining. "I love you."

But the conversation ended when Davey spotted people on a high-rise rooftop a quarter mile away. "Got people on rooftop off your left shoulder," Davey half-shouted to Sgt. William Goolsby, behind an M-240 machine gun mounted atop the Humvee.

The children kept shouting "mister, mister," trying to get Davey's attention, but he kept scanning around him, then said a quick "Good-bye."

The convoy off-loaded Fourth Infantry Division vehicles and crews a little south of Baghdad.

On the return trip, the empty transport trucks passed people with sticks herding goats, sheep and camels in the blazing sun. The drivers saw children driving donkey carts and farmers cutting wheat by hand. They spotted charred hulls of Iraqi armored vehicles.

Later in the darkness, the convoy braked to a halt in the middle of a three-lane highway. Someone had found unexploded ordnance lying ahead. They had to wait in the open desert, under a starry sky, while a crew cleared the material.

Beside the halted convoy sat stranded Iraqi trucks, buses and passenger cars.

Scores of civilians left their vehicles and gathered along a shoulder. The crowd began to chant in words the soldiers could not understand. As the chanting grew louder, some men in the crowd began to jump up and down.

Convoy guards, holding rifles, watched nervously. A Navy Seabee told Faria, the Army major, that the people were probably harmless. But, he asked Faria, how can you know?

Faria wished he knew Arabic.

Another soldier eyeing the crowd, Spc. Michael Funk, felt uneasy. Two nights earlier, he rode at the end of a convoy that saw tracer rounds fired over it.

Funk, with the 1133rd Transportation Group, based in Mason City, Iowa, said his sergeant told him to "lock and load," slang for preparing to fire.

He felt relieved when an MP's Humvee, armed with a grenade launcher, pulled in behind his vehicle. "Better safe than sorry," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Convoy