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Snipers, car bombers infest Baghdad's airport road

BAGHDAD, Iraq—It's perhaps the most dangerous stretch of road in Iraq.

Snipers lie in ambush. Drivers sometimes flash guns, watching one another warily as they careen at high speed. Suicide car bombers lurk, ready to swerve into the path of a U.S. military convoy.

It's the road to Baghdad's international airport. Called Route Irish by the American military, the road is also known as "ambush alley."

Barely 7 miles long, the four-lane highway is emerging as a symbol of Washington's troubles in Iraq. Despite the presence of more than 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the road is such a death trap that the American and British embassies last week declared it off limits for civilian personnel.

Diplomats now must use helicopters to get to the airport from the fortified "green zone" of ministries and embassies downtown. Anyone else who's leaving Baghdad by airplane still has to brave the road.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in April 2003, the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority foresaw the reopening of the airport road that June. Eighteen months later, a senior American official in Washington noted, "We still can't control it."

U.S. officials aren't alone in their frustration. Iraqis who once used the roadway regularly also are disturbed.

"I cannot take the airport road because it is too dangerous," said Aubaida Adnan, a taxi driver. "I was on that road once when an American tank was destroyed. The soldiers started to shoot randomly. A bullet hit my car. I tried to escape but I crashed."

The road is now pocked with hastily filled-in craters. On any given day, the carcasses of destroyed cars are being towed off the roadway.

Roadside explosions triggered by remote control happen almost daily. Suicide car bombers are increasingly frequent; including one every day for five days straight in the past week, although Friday was quiet. In the last month, 14 suicide car bombs have blown up along the highway, five of them targeting civilian convoys.

Those who must take the road often drive very fast, hitting the brakes only when they see a U.S. military convoy. When convoys move along the road, an American soldier in the last vehicle, keeping alert for suicide bombers, routinely emerges from a turret to raise a fist. It's a sign for the trailing cars to back off—or risk being fired on.

Iraqi civilian drivers are as afraid of hair-trigger U.S. soldiers as of car bombs and insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades at the military convoys.

"People do not like to be near the convoys because they are a target" for insurgents, said Wissam Abdul Khalik, an owner of a food store.

Abdul Khalik, 40, said he lived near the airport, so he had to drive on the perilous road to get to his shop. But he has a new strategy.

"I now use a motorbike," he said. When gunfire erupts, "it is very easy to escape."

Making the airport road safe is not easy. Identifying and stopping suicide bombers before all vehicles are searched just outside the airport is almost impossible.

U.S. officials have ordered trees cut down and fences installed, but tens of thousands of Iraqis live in neighborhoods abutting the highway, and sealing off their access isn't considered an option.

When faced with similar dilemmas, security officials in Israel have deployed bulldozers to raze Palestinian houses near roadways to make travel safer. U.S. officials reject any similar tactic, wary of inflaming passions.

During Saddam's dictatorial regime, thousands of troops patrolled the roadway, making it safe. Few Iraqis risked rocking the boat under Saddam, afraid that his henchmen might lop off their ears or send them to torture centers.

"It was the most beautiful and the safest road in Baghdad," recalled Essam Maiz, a 34-year-old artist.

But now, anti-American insurgents apparently like making international headlines with attacks on the roadway.

"It is an important road, and they know that the majority of people using it are foreigners or people working with the multinational force," said Sabah Kadhim, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

Iraq's interim government has "various ideas on the table" for making the road safer, he said, declining to elaborate.

Some businesses, meanwhile, suffer quietly from the troubles along the road.

"My employees refuse to go to the airport," said the manager of Al Wafid Travel Agency, who declined to give his name. He said one worker saw a civilian car blown up along the road. "He told me, `Even if you pay me $1 million, I won't go back there.' "

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(Jassim is a special correspondent. Knight Ridder correspondent Tim Johnson contributed to this report.)

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041203 AIRPORTROAD

Iraq

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