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Supply routes recovering after convoy attacks in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The shortages became noticeable when soap and deodorant disappeared from American contract shop shelves, and salads and sweets became scarce at dining halls catering to the U.S.-led coalition. Around the same time, U.S. forces dipped into their ammunition and fuel reserves.

Two weeks into a wave of attacks that have destroyed dozens of convoys carrying crucial goods to the capital, the insurgent campaign has disrupted life for the U.S.-led coalition—even in the Green Zone, the city within this city where U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer and 5,000 coalition members live and work.

The experience has underscored how isolated the American operation is from the Iraqi society it's trying to transform. Outside the zone, life goes on.

"We're a-OK on fuel and a-OK on ammo again. We're starting to build our stocks up," a senior coalition military official said in a background briefing this week, trying to reassure reporters that supply routes are being re-established. He declined to specify when or for long they weren't a-OK.

Pressed, the official, who asked not to be named, used Pentagon jargon to describe how ammunition and fuel stocks had dipped below military planners' comfort levels: They'd gone from green to amber in recent days, he said, gingerly avoiding details that could offer valuable information to the enemy. That's still better than red or black, at which points military operations are significantly affected.

Some of the same supply problems that bedeviled the initial U.S.-led invasion are back—smack in the center of Baghdad, inside the 4-square-mile zone that functions on an independent economy not unlike Berlin behind the wall.

With food supplies short, military planners have been considering for days whether to unpack their cases of field rations, called MREs, for everyone from foreign service officers to soldiers securing the barricades around the compound.

Military officers say insurgents trying to uproot the U.S.-led occupation have periodically attacked convoys since coalition forces invaded Iraq a year ago. But the convoy campaign began in earnest around April 5.

Since then, gunmen have sabotaged roads and bridges along supply routes, planted bombs that explode beneath columns of armor, and attacked trucks and Humvees with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.

The flash points have been a cargo triangle of highways around Abu Ghraib that connect Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi trade routes. It includes the southern approaches to Baghdad, from Kuwait through the Shiite heartland, the lifeline of supplies trucked in by the military and Kellogg, Brown and Root, the Halliburton subsidiary that feeds the Green Zone and many forces in Iraq.

Outside Abu Ghraib on April 9, insurgents blew up a column carrying fuel for U.S. troops, sending plumes of smoke so high they could be seen from central Baghdad. A soldier was killed and two others disappeared along with seven contractors, presumably whisked away as prisoners. One was Pfc. Keith Maupin, 20, of Batavia, Ohio, who on Friday turned up on Arab television in a videotape, surrounded by masked gunmen offering to trade him for Iraqi prisoners.

The on-again, off-again Green Zone shortages—there's talk of perhaps feeding coalition workers with MREs, the prepackaged military rations called Meals-Ready-to-Eat—illustrate the gulf between the coalition and the city beyond.

Baghdad proper is still awash in goods that have become scarce in the Green Zone—fresh fruits and vegetables, bread baked daily, soaps and deodorants of all varieties. Restaurants are open, and imports arrive from across the Arab world and Europe through trade and smuggling routes that elude the attacks.

But all of this is mostly off limits to U.S. coalition workers, who rarely dare to venture beyond the barricades these days for fear of being kidnapped.

"It's always been isolated," a coalition adviser who lives in the Green Zone said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But I suppose when you see the symbols of isolation on your plate, I guess that makes it more obvious. There isn't a sense of crisis, but there is a sense that, if it continues, it could be."

The sense of isolation stems in part from a creeping sense of insecurity—skyrocketing casualties in nearly three weeks of fierce attacks on mostly American coalition forces—at a time when the coalition might expect Iraqis to help out.

Part of the problem is that the Green Zone has functioned for a year on an independent economy in the middle of Iraq, like a cruise ship at sea—serving American-style food shipped in from Kuwait, cooked and served by Filipinos and citizens of other third-world nations—in a city where smugglers kept open trade routes throughout the decade-long United Nations embargo on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Iraqis learned long ago to hoard and forage for supplies.

Struggling to take back the roads, the military this weekend said it would close major highways in and out of the sprawling city for several days. It's a move meant to secure the roads for convoys, but it signaled how much the capital was cut off from swaths of the country.

A senior coalition official refused to say whether planners considered buying goods from local markets. "Any decisions about using Red Zone supplies obviously has implications for security," he said curtly.

An Iraqi industrialist, who asked not to be named, understands the Americans' dilemma. He's willing to supply spare parts for Iraqi government equipment and high-speed telecommunications to Iraq's emerging information highway. But he won't offer the coalition water from his Baghdad bottling plant, even though it would be cheaper for the United States than buying it abroad and trucking it here on a 350-mile journey from Kuwait.

Were a bitter Baghdadi to find out that his water was bound for "the Americans," he said, someone might contaminate it—and ruin his other coalition contract business. It's a year later, he said, and the coalition still hasn't figured out how to use the local economy to solve its supply problems.

"All the caravans are stopping now because the resistance is in control. They can't move," he said. "They've only done one thing right. They got rid of Saddam."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): green zone

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