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Road to Baghdad airport a deadly, unavoidable route

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The highway to Baghdad International Airport is called "Route Irish" on military maps. But it's better known as "Ambush Alley" to most people catching a flight these days.

A year of U.S. military patrols and the destruction of the lush palm groves that once lined the busy thoroughfare haven't stopped the insurgents who are responsible for more than 200 attacks on this 5-mile stretch since last spring. Soldiers and private security contractors still zigzag around homemade bombs and regularly battle guerrillas who launch grenades from bushes or fire machine guns from overpasses.

Ordinary Iraqis often are caught in the crossfire.

"If we are killed, we died for our country," said Mahmoud Aymad, an Iraqi businessman who traveled the route Thursday. "The whole country is a disaster because of Americans, but we thought they'd at least be able to secure a road."

The treacherous six-lane route is closed to U.S. government traffic this week amid concerns that the return of sovereignty to Iraqis would bring a wave of attacks on military and civilian convoys.

Soldiers at an airport checkpoint passed out leaflets Thursday that said the decreased traffic was to keep Iraqis safe as they enjoyed their new independence. A military intelligence report, however, made it clear that the measure was to protect U.S. citizens during the volatile hand-over period. An armored shuttle service was stopped and Americans working for the government were banned from the airport.

"Personnel traveling on commercial airlines to/from Baghdad during the period of 28 June through 4 July are advised that they must alter their travel plans," the report said.

Since April, when violence in western cities closed the heavily traveled vehicle route from Iraq to Jordan, flying has been the safest travel option—provided you survive the drive to the airport. An American Defense Department contractor who makes the trip weekly said he checked the color-coded alerts—in green, amber and red—before hitting the road in his white Chevy Suburban, a vehicle so obvious he might as well have a sign that reads "foreigner on board."

"Green," the contractor snorted this week. "It's never been green."

High-ranking generals and top U.S. administrators avoid the highway altogether, hopping on helicopters to reach the airport. Other civilians, such as Americans who worked for the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority, have no choice but to wait out the travel ban before catching flights to safer destinations.

Iraqis who live in the neighborhoods along the road said they kept their children indoors and prayed every time they got behind the wheel to drive to work. Residents said they were warned with a pamphlet from rebels that instructed them to stay off the roads and avoid helping U.S. forces by offering them sniper positions.

With residents too scared to offer tips, the American-led Multinational Forces are pouring money into neighborhood improvements in hopes of winning over locals. In case that doesn't work, there's a surveillance camera on a low-flying blimp and plans for more security technology in the area.

"Of course we're concerned," said U.S. Army Capt. Brian Lucas, who travels the road in heavily armed military convoys as well as the soft-shell SUVs. "The whole ride, you're just looking out, trying to see if there are any bad guys on the road."

While dozens have died en route to the airport, the most brazen and sophisticated attack came in early June. Insurgents surrounded a convoy and raked it with bullets, killing four security contractors—two Americans and two Poles. An Iraqi family caught in the crossfire burned to death in their car, according to eyewitness accounts.

"Every day, I see traces of the attacks on the streets: blood, craters and burning pieces of cars," said Anmar Nadiq, a taxi driver who shuttles foreigners to and from the airport.

Nadiq said he put curtains in his cab to shield vulnerable Westerners from view. These days, he said, the dangers are so well known that passengers climb into his cab and immediately put on the Arab headdresses they carry for disguises. Then they settle in for the tense, 20-minute ride from the airport to downtown hotels.

"They just sit there terrified and don't say a word," Nadiq said. "I once drove a Swedish man who wouldn't leave the car even after we were off the road and at his hotel. I had to say, `Mister, it's OK. It's over now.'"

On Thursday, the road was eerily quiet under a searing sun. Just a handful of cars ventured down it. The only Iraqis visible in the bushes were shepherds watching over goats and sheep.

Sand-colored U.S. tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were partially obscured by patches of trees. Iraqi soldiers hid behind pillars at overpasses, their guns ready. Joint patrols of the airport road will become more common as Iraqis play a bigger role in their own security, an American military official said.

"We were actually more frightened because it was so quiet," said Thomas Seifert, an Austrian journalist who was waiting Thursday for a flight to Jordan. "My driver and I kept asking each other, `What are the tanks doing here? Why are the streets so empty?' We just drove very slowly, wondering if something had happened."


(Knight Ridder correspondent Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Washington.)


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

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