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Documentary : Mideast Road Warriors: Getting There Is Half the Story : Bad highways and white knuckles on the way to Baghdad.

June 11, 1991|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The steel guardrail on the six-lane highway between Jordan and Baghdad was bashed and bent like twisted pasta. The San Bernardino Freeway on its worst weekend looked more hospitable.

Some of this was war damage. The charbroiled tanker trucks overturned on the shoulders gave testimony. They were allied targets late in the air war.

But after two weeks of barreling north to south and east to west during my first reporting trip back to Iraq since the end of the war, I suspect the country's maniacal motorists single-handedly contributed the greatest share of guardrail abuse. And if that suggests they had even one hand on the wheel, it's giving the benefit of the doubt.

Motoring in Iraq is white-knuckle time. Universal Studios should pick up the option. After escaping "Jaws," your tram would plow into a flock of sheep, sail blindly through a shamal dust storm and end up navigating the Ramadi bridge.

Ramadi is an hour west of Baghdad, and to get that close to the capital, my destination, was an achievement itself. I'd set out from Amman 14 hours earlier with a colleague, Christina Nylander of Swedish Radio, and a garrulous driver named Gamel.

Our Chevrolet extended-cab pickup was loaded to the roof. Nylander and I had two small bags each, with the rest of the stuff Gamel's: boxes of Jordanian fruit (nobody crosses a border in the Middle East without carrying something to sell on the other side), an empty jerrycan for fuel, a camp stove to cook his hummus , his tea set and who knows what else was back there. Nothing live, I think.

Drivers always start with a sad story, softening you up for the tip. Gamel's was sleep. He hadn't had much for the past four days, he said, and only an hour the night before our dawn departure. Naturally enough, I suppose, he caught up on our time.

Nylander was in back; I was in front in the suicide seat, where I could watch Gamel's eyelids slowly droop. "I'm fine," he insisted after the third or fourth nudge. "It's just the sand bothering my eyes." Aha! I dove into my bag and produced a small bottle of Visine, which he took with thanks and, like a good professional driver, shoved up a nostril.

Patiently, as I recall, I explained that this was an eyewash, not a Benzedrine inhaler. He tried again. It seemed to work. At least it got him out of Jordan to the Iraqi border post at Trebeil. By then Gamel was cooking--literally, whipping up some hummus on the tailgate.

"Now," he said, "we'll get the petrol to take us to Baghdad."

"You don't have gas?" I asked.

"No, we buy it here. It's cheaper here than in Jordan."

Good idea, but there was no gas at Trebeil.

We couldn't go back. Our visas had already been stamped into Iraq. We couldn't go forward, Gamel said. Not enough gas to reach the next town.

So he staged a standing sit-in at the Iraqi border post. "The government must give us petrol," he announced loudly. Terrific. We were in the hands of one of Jordan's new democrats.

After an hour of waiting for the government to deliver, Gamel finally conceded that Iraq wasn't into democracy yet. So, teaming with an ABC-TV truck, whose driver was also looking for cheap fuel at Trebeil, we caravaned a hundred miles to Rutba, the next town--the two trucks leapfrogging, drafting and coasting for long stretches in neutral. We reached Rutba on fumes, but gas was there, pumped directly from a tanker truck.

That and pouring an occasional bottle of drinking water over Gamel's head got us to Ramadi and the bridge. There are two bridges over the Euphrates at Ramadi. We took the one with the holes in it.

Some allied pilot had unloaded what a marksman would call a nice, tight shot group. Six bombs right through the span, leaving just enough pavement to weave across in a slow-motion slalom.

That got us to the dip. The seventh bomb had not pierced the span; it blew it to pieces. The roadbed had dropped about four feet, but large chunks of it were still held in place by a net of reinforcing rods. The blue-green Euphrates burbled southward about 10 feet below.

It's a dip. You go down one side and come up the other, keeping your wheels on the chunks for traction. Easy. We went down; we started up; we bottomed out, our rear bumper scraping along the downward slope. That's it, I thought, we jettison Gamel's fruit into the Euphrates. As the idea formed, Gamel put the pedal to the metal and we popped free. Who scripted this ride?

An hour later, Gamel delivered us into the hands of his cousins, the Iraqi drivers. Nylander and I hired the least fawning of them, picked up Jonathan Randal of the Washington Post as a traveling companion and set out the next day on the highways and byways of Iraq.

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