Drivers beware on Iraq's 'RPG Alley'

Thursday, December 2, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The driver barreled down the road from Baghdad International Airport, his eyes darting from side to side for signs of trouble. A few hundred yards ahead, a convoy of U.S. contractors stopped on an overpass. Armed men jumped from the vehicles -- weapons at the ready.

Three vehicles from the Iraqi National Guard had been struck by rocket-propelled grenades and the contractors stopped to help. Not so the rest of the cars. Fearing the gunmen may still be around, the driver and dozens of civilian cars and trucks crowded onto an exit road for a quick escape.

It is a scene repeated with alarming frequency along the white-knuckle 10-mile stretch of highway -- known to U.S. troops as "RPG Alley" -- which links the center of Baghdad with the airport on the western outskirts of the city.

The U.S. State Department has described the airport road as one of the most dangerous routes in Iraq, and the British Embassy has banned its diplomats from using the road because of the high risk of attack.

The situation on the airport road has become a metaphor for the entire Iraq mission. More than 18 months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the world's most powerful military cannot guarantee the safety of Iraqis, foreigners and its own troops who use one of the country's most important routes.

The four-lane road, much of it lined with scrub brush and palm trees where gunmen can hide, passes through dangerous Baghdad neighborhoods. Insurgents know they can always find plenty of targets -- U.S. convoys, Iraqi military vehicles and civilian contractors.

In the latest attack, three people were injured Wednesday when a "vehicle-borne improvised explosive device" -- the U.S. military term for a car bomb -- detonated as several Sport Utility Vehicles, favored by U.S. and other Western security contractors, were passing by.

One of the vehicles lay overturned in the middle of the road as U.S. troops sealed off the area and two helicopters arrived to evacuate casualties. The blast occurred at the same place where a suicide bomber rammed into a U.S. military convoy the day before, wounding several soldiers and destroying two Humvees.

U.S. military officials do not release full details of attacks on the road, possibly to avoid encouraging the insurgents.

On Nov. 8, the Iraqi Interior Ministry reported that two SUVs were caught in an explosion as a convoy traveled through the Amiriyah district on the airport road. U.S. officials released no details of the attack.

The next day, however, CBS and NBC reported that one of those in the convoy was Charles Duelfer, who conducted the fruitless search of Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. Duelfer escaped injury but both networks reported that two of his bodyguards were killed.

Mindful of the risks, drivers have developed their own set of tricks when using the road -- chief among them, stay off as much of the route as possible. Those traveling between the airport and the center of the city prefer to maneuver through other streets to minimize their time on the airport road.

Rule Number Two: Drive as fast as possible. Weave around slower-moving vehicles and if possible, don't get stuck in a traffic jam. The next vehicle might be rigged to explode. Experienced drivers glance from side to side for telltale signs of trouble -- muzzle flashes, smoke or groups of men who may be armed.

And at all costs, avoid tailing American military vehicles or SUVs -- the favorite targets.

Despite the increasing dangers, the airport road has taken on greater importance for foreign diplomats, journalists and Iraqis because the dreadful security situation elsewhere precludes using other routes into and out of the country.

The main highways west to Jordan and Syria are even more dangerous -- especially for foreigners -- because of armed insurgents around Ramadi and Fallujah who have kidnapped and beheaded both Iraqi and foreign hostages.

The road south toward Karbala and Najaf passes through a string of insurgent-controlled towns and cities dubbed "the triangle of death" because of the large number of foreigners and Iraqi Shiite Muslims waylaid over the last year.

Another road to the southeast through Kut and on to Basra is considered safer -- but only relatively. As the route approaches Amarah it passes through an area notorious for carjackings.

The highway north toward Mosul, known to the U.S. military as Highway One, passes through such insurgency-plagued cities as Samarra, Tikrit and Beiji. And the U.S. military describes the situation in Mosul as "tenuous."

That leaves the airport as the "safest" way out of Baghdad.

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