A growing number of foreign truckers refuse to travel in Iraq

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- On his first journey to Iraq in eight months, Jordanian truck driver Faisal Suleyman was followed, pulled over and robbed by four men in a sky-blue taxi brandishing automatic weapons.

The trip will be his last, he said Tuesday, placing him among a growing number of foreign drivers -- whose cargo is vital to Iraq's reconstruction -- refusing to brave the gantlet of kidnappings, robberies and other violence plaguing the country.

"Nobody wants to come here, it's not safe," Suleyman said in the cab of his 16-wheeler Mercedes at a wind-swept truck-stop on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Hitting home that point, black-masked, armed militants calling themselves "The Group of Death" threatened in a video Tuesday to sever the main highway linking Iraq to Jordan in 72 hours and target Jordanians to stop supplies from reaching U.S. troops.

"We consider all Jordanian interests, companies and businessmen and citizens as much a target as the Americans," one militant said in the video obtained by Associated Press Television News.

Since April, militants have abducted more than 70 foreigners -- mostly truckers traveling with little or no armed escort -- in an effort to hurt U.S. forces and hamper reconstruction efforts.

The campaign is clearly effective.

On Tuesday, a Jordanian firm working with the U.S. military announced it was withdrawing from Iraq to secure the release of two abducted Jordanian drivers, whose families threatened to behead the company's director unless he yielded to the kidnappers' demands.

Suleyman said he used to make the run from Amman to Baghdad twice a week, bringing in rice, sugar and flour until insurgent activity made the road too insecure in November.

Test runLast week, he decided to test the waters again with a load he considered safe in Muslim-dominated Iraq: 50,000 copies of the Quran donated from a Cairo mosque.

He was nervous. Colleagues advised him not to stop "even to drink water" and avoid driving late in the afternoon.

When he pulled over to fix a flat tire near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, he was relieved to see a police patrol car -- a rare sight. An officer told him, "Don't stay here long, this place is dangerous," he said. After a few minutes, the police left, but not before demanding 10,000 dinars, or $7, for providing "protection."

As Suleyman moved up the road, he noticed a blue taxi swerving behind him. Four men inside waved automatic weapons out the windows as the car followed him for nearly an hour. Just outside Fallujah, it forced him to pull over.

The gunmen took him from the truck and stole his cell phone.

"I was afraid they were going to kill me," he said. "When they saw I was carrying copies of the Quran, they waved me on."

He was lucky.

Last week, authorities found the corpse of a Jordanian driver dumped alongside the Amman-Baghdad highway with his eyes gouged.

Some 40 Jordanian trucks were either looted or burned and about 40 truck drivers were killed over the last year, according to Abdul-Majid al-Habashneh, head of the Jordanian Truckers Association.

Two Bulgarian truckers were abducted July 9; one was beheaded, the second is missing. A Turkish driver killed recently was buried in Turkey on Tuesday.

Last week, Filipino driver Angelo dela Cruz was freed after his government caved in to kidnappers' demands to withdraw its troops.

Iraq and many coalition members say the Philippines' decision emboldened the militants.

The day after the Filipino's release, militants seized three Kenyans, three Indians and one Egyptian -- all truck drivers -- and threatened to behead them if their Kuwaiti company continues doing business here.

The Iraqi government plans to send army patrols to escort truckers, who complain security forces do little to protect them, said George Sada, spokesman for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

"This has certainly affected trade, and they have all the right to be afraid," Sada said. "We are doing our best to deal with it."

U.S. forces only accompany vehicles working in support of the coalition; about 500 vehicles enter Iraq daily with U.S. escorts, said Maj. Richard W. Spiegel.

"We take the protection of our contracted civilians very seriously. They are an essential partner," he said. "All truck drivers, military and civilian alike, share the same risks."

The violence has cut deeply into cross-border trade.

Al-Habashneh said just 5 percent of Jordan's 11,000-truck fleet was ferrying supplies to Iraq -- down from 85 percent before the U.S.-led 2003 invasion. Iraqi drivers, targeted less, have taken up some of the slack.

Most drivers can't differentiate between insurgents and highway robbers. "They all have guns," said Naeem Adwan, who hauls foodstuffs and electrical supplies into Iraq twice a week.

At least once every other trip, he is stopped by gunmen.

"They ask whether we are working with the Americans," he said, taking a drag off a cigarette. "We say no, they search us, and usually wave us on."

On Saturday, gunmen fired at Adwan's truck near the northern city of Mosul, forcing him off the road and taking all he had, about $150.

For most of the few truckers still willing to travel to Iraq, caring for their families keeps them on the road, despite the risks. Adwan earns $700 for every roundtrip from Jordan. Others earn much more.

"We need the money," said Mustapha Almari, a Syrian driver who hauls cement. "We can't quit so easily."

Other truckers will keep driving -- just not here.

"This is the end of it. I'm not coming back again," Suleyman said. "I'm just praying I get back to Jordan alive."

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