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Traveling on a Highway of Dread

A reporter recalls her own wary journey on airport road hours before an ex-hostage was shot.

March 07, 2005|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The route runs through a broad and flat landscape, bare but for a few date palms rising tall and dignified and the occasional small bush. Goats mill about, shepherded by young boys or old men. Except for the litter of plastic bottles and bags, the scene is almost pastoral, peaceful.

It hardly seems the place where people could hide and detonate bombs or jump out and ambush vehicles. But this is Baghdad's airport road, seven miles of dread.

It was on this road that U.S. soldiers opened fire Friday night on the car carrying Italian journalist Guiliana Sgrena, wounding her and killing the Italian intelligence agent who had negotiated her release from Sunni Muslim insurgents.

Having reported from Iraq for much of the last two years, I was dismayed to hear that a fellow journalist who had survived the unimaginable stress and fear of being a hostage was then the victim of an American military shooting. But when I learned the incident occurred on the airport road, it became, at one level, understandable.

Bad things happen on the airport road -- all the time. Many people who travel it on a regular basis have a personal horror story, a moment when they thought, "This might be it." Everyone else has a friend who has had one.

Since the war, the airport road has not been any ordinary highway. It is a battleground; a place without rules or certainties, a place where there are no guarantees of safety for civilians or soldiers of any nationality.

For the ordinary traveler, there are two hazards: the wary, short-fused American troops who have lost dozens of their comrades to roadside bombs and ambushes, and the insurgents who target the U.S. military convoys that ply the route.

It is a road to be approached with caution, with a plan, with wariness of every other car and every American convoy.

About five hours before Sgrena was shot, I was on the same road, traveling in the opposite direction from the airport into Baghdad with what has become routine unease. Rather than looking at the scenery, I stared straight ahead and felt a faint nausea.

Many who have traveled the six-lane route have wondered how U.S. and Iraqi forces can ever expect to defeat Iraq's insurgency if they cannot even make this short stretch of pavement safe. As we drove along, I remembered a conversation I had before the Jan. 30 election with a Western diplomat who had lived in Iraq off and on for a year.

I had asked him if the U.S. military's goal was to secure more of the country before the vote.

He raised his eyebrows. "The country?" he replied, as if I had asked for the moon. "How about Baghdad? How about just the airport road?"

Most organizations whose employees must travel the route have rules for how to do it. Like most security measures in war zones, they are gospel until the day they don't work. Some people use armored vehicles and have "chase cars" with armed guards trail them, believing that although they may be conspicuous, at least in an armored car they will survive if insurgents open fire.

Others, wary that armored vehicles might attract the insurgents, will only travel in old Iraqi cars.

No one talks much about the reality that only the heaviest armor, the kind used by the military, can withstand a roadside bomb, and even then not all roadside bombs. Few civilian cars are fitted with that amount of armor.

I travel in an old Iraqi car, and dress in a black gown and head scarf so as not to attract attention. When a military convoy appears, my driver slows to a crawl and waits for it to get at least half a mile ahead before picking up pace again. We fear we might get hit if we get too close and insurgents open fire on the convoy.

As the road slipped by on Friday, I was struck by the calm of the scene, and yet aware of my suspicions. Were the three children playing in the scrub by the side of the road just in need of a playground, or had they been trained to step on a detonator as a U.S. convoy moved by? Was the dead goat stuffed with explosives? Could the quiet neighborhood with hardly a car in sight be hiding insurgents?

"See, that's where there was an IED," my driver Ahmad said, using the military's shorthand for improvised explosive device. "You can see the pit," he said gesturing to a crater.

He pointed to the charred shell of a car sitting a few feet off the shoulder.

"See that, that's a bomb car," he said.

"Last summer I was here, driving from the airport, and suddenly, 'Boom!' A Humvee ahead of us was hit. I said, 'It's OK, it's OK' and then everyone began shooting -- the Americans, the Iraqis over there," he said, gesturing to the nearby neighborhood.

On this route, it's hard to know whether a car that speeds by a military convoy simply has a nervous driver, or carries a suicide bomber. Last fall, a bomber on the road targeted an armored bus carrying U.S. personnel. No one was killed, but the bus was damaged. Often passing civilians are injured or die in the attacks.

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