At Large

The Road to Baghdad International

A ride along the scariest nine miles in the world.

By 7.15.05

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I've been in Baghdad nearly four months. According to my company's policy, I am entitled to a couple of weeks of R&R back in the States. When someone mentioned that this is a very generous policy, I pointed out that our other rules requiring that we work seven days a week are not quite as generous. But I am scheduled to return to Iraq in late July. I wouldn't miss the opportunity to go back for any reason.

Every trip to the outside world has to start with a ride to BIAP. This time I made the trip with three professional private security company drivers employed by the outfit across the street from our house/office. Two of them happened to be going on an R&R vacation too.

Any trip out of Baghdad first involves a very dangerous eight- or nine-mile drive to BIAP. From there, I will fly to Beirut aboard an airline with the improbable name of "The Flying Carpet." I am to spend the night in Beirut, and then at the crack of dawn to head to Boston via London.

This drive to BIAP -- Baghdad International Airport -- was without doubt, the scariest ride I have ever been on. I have no idea how much of the fear we felt was genuine and how much was imagining an enemy lurking out there when, in reality, there might have been no one there at all.

We left our neighborhood late as usual. That put us in the middle of heavy late morning Baghdad city traffic. At this time of day, you can never be sure who is in the car or truck next to you. Happily, all I can think is that if the guy in the next truck is planning a VBED (Vehicle-Borne Explosive Device) bomb attack on us, it will be so quick I'll never know it.

After a short while, the traffic started to string out and pretty soon we caught up with a convoy of U.S. Army Humvees out on roadside bomb patrol. Our driver slowed down to convoy speed and stayed 150 meters back. He then reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a large piece of orange canvas. He put it in his left hand and stuck it out the window. This was a signal to the soldier manning the .50 caliber machine gun in the trailing Humvee that we are "friendly." It's also a request for permission to pass.

Obviously, any terrorist with half a brain could get his hands on a couple of yards of orange canvas, fill his vehicle with artillery shells, and create a VBED. Just as we, he could also catch up with a Humvee convoy, wave the orange panel, request permission to pass, and detonate himself. When detonated, such a car bomb would easily engulf the entire three-vehicle convoy of Army soldiers and, potentially, kill all nine on board.

As we slowly started to catch up, our driver still frantically waved his canvas panel. The rest of us by now had joined him and started to wave our DoD badges out the windows as well. A DoD badge is exactly the size of a credit card, yet we were requiring the soldier in the trailing Humvee to correctly decide at 100 meters whether we were friend or foe and whether to fire at us. Whatever his decision, it would have to be made on the basis of no visible evidence. He could not have possibly seen our badges and, because of tinted windows, he couldn't possibly have made us out either. When we got to about 50 meters of the convoy, the soldier gave us a motion to pass. This time he made the right decision. We were not terrorists and we were not driving a car bomb. As we gathered speed and passed the convoy we were traveling about 80 miles per hour. I gave the soldier a big thumbs up. He returned the signal and smiled.

The road to BIAP -- pronounced bye-op by those of us in Baghdad -- is referred to, not surprisingly, as the Bye-Op Road. The military, however, with its fondness for code names, calls it Route Irish. The 1944 Normandy Invasion, for example, was code-named Operation Overlord. At least then, requirements of secrecy gave the code name a purpose. The BIAP road is a six-lane divided highway and no amount of secrecy or code naming is going to conceal it. But no one should try to deprive the military of its God-given right to use code names.

As we were passing Baghdad University, the driver got a call from "home base" in the Green House. In the jargon of the trade we were on a "mission," and it was essential that headquarters stay in touch. The driver was told that the U.S. Army has closed down Route Irish. A car bomb had exploded, or a car bomb had been found and was being disarmed. Whatever the case, we were re-routed and directed to get to the airport a different way. The driver cursed because he had never driven to BIAP this new way. He was not familiar with all the danger points where terrorists can hide before launching an attack with RPG's or IED's. Extensive use of initials is another genetically encoded trait of the military

JOHN, OUR DRIVER TO BIAP, is about 35 and from Little Rock. He has been doing the "personal security stuff" in Iraq for well over two years. Today he really looks the part. He is fully decked out in PSC regalia. He is wearing an officer's flack jacket with extra protection around the shoulders and neck. It also includes four or five pouches for extra ammunition clips. A communication set-up of some kind leads to a little microphone in front of his mouth, just as phone operators had years ago. Because John smiles a lot, I am unaccountably drawn back 50 years to the advertising tag line Bell Telephone used for years about their phone operators: "The voice with a smile."

John is also carrying a very mean-looking machine gun of a kind I have never seen before, and, topping it all off like a cherry on a banana split, he wears black leather half-gloves and walks with a swagger. The only time I have seen these gloves before is on rappelers and on Olympic weightlifters. One day, I noticed John wore these gloves to lunch and never took them off! He told me the bare trigger finger gives him "the touch I need to fire my weapon accurately and with mortal effect." I think that John has also been reading too many convoy warning notices.

John is a veteran of this corner of the world. He has had one roommate, and "three sidekicks" killed since he arrived here. I asked him how many ambushes or firefights he has survived, and he replies: "Lots. I've lost track of how many. The weirdest one was the night we got mortared while escorting a truck. The driver fell out of the truck. He was covered with blood. He'd been hit by lots of shrapnel and all this s--- was sticking out of his head. I told the others: 'Don't tell the dude about that s--- coming out of his head. Maybe he won't realize what's going on. They med-evacked him out, but he died before he reached the hospital."

John will keep coming back to Iraq for as long as there is fighting going on here: "This security convoy stuff is the only thing I know how to do," he says.

Everyone in Iraq who carries a weapon follows a ritual every time he gets in or out of his vehicle with his pistol, or his M-5, or both. It absolutely reminds me of a major league baseball player coming to bat. He spits, he scratches, he re-sets his cup, he tightens and loosens his batting gloves, he twists his neck, he scratches some more, and spits again.

In the case of our guys, the ritual involves chambering bullets, clearing the weapon, popping out the rounds and catching them in mid-air, engaging in endless metal-on-metal sliding noise, practicing a quick draw, slamming a new clip into the butt of the pistol, releasing it and slamming it home again. A while ago, I jokingly told all the other passengers in an SUV that I would no longer ride with them for fear of being shot while they were going through their warm-up routines! What's really interesting about all this Rambo-like posturing is that none of our people have fired a real shot in more than three years!!

The end of the routine always concludes with sliding the pistol under their left thighs with the barrel pointed in a direction that guarantees a Bobbit-like calamity. The theory about this is that, the under-thigh location is the one allowing the quickest draw in the event of an "underway emergency." The other day CJ (one of my associates) placed his pistol in the hot sun right above the dashboard and conducted such a lengthy warm-up, that by the time he slipped the pistol under his thigh, it was so hot it gave him a blister right through his jeans! That can easily happen when the outside temperature hovers around 130 degrees!

WHEN JOHN RESUMED DRIVING after hearing the bad news that Irish was closed, two things happened. Just as we were about to pass a beat up pickup truck, John said to Mike sitting next to him in the front seat: "Hand me your pistol!" He then rapidly sped up to 90 miles an hour and pointed the pistol to shoot straight through the glass of the driver side window! I asked him about that later and he said that he felt suspicious of the pickup we were passing and, had his observation confirmed anything untoward, he would have shot at the pickup's front seat passengers through our closed window. Fortunately, he detected nothing "untoward."

After passing the pickup we moved in behind a truck that was speeding along so we used him as a "blocking back" for about a mile. Then traffic really started to slow down. The one and only rule of the road by which we live in Iraq is this: "When you are on the road speed saves lives. Excessive speed saves lives many times over!" John then said to me: "This is no good. It's too slow. Now you're going to learn why they pay me the big bucks!" (And, big bucks is indeed what people like him get. The most frequent number I have heard is $180,000 a year, but I have also heard much higher figures.)

We slowed down sharply, made a 90 degree left turn, and bounced across the torn-up center median. When we cleared the median, we made a 90 degree right turn so we were headed right into the oncoming traffic on the other side of the median! This was like driving north in the southbound lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike!

In Iraq, all traffic is alert to the kind of maneuver we had just performed. No one is truly shocked when he is suddenly about to be run down by a wave of oncoming traffic. With constant horn blowing and John's deft driving, we managed to work our way over to the extreme left side of the highway (the slow lane for the oncoming traffic) and found it pretty clear. We were then able to make brisk and very steady "wrong way" progress until we came close to the BIAP gate. At this point John said: "There is a Humvee convoy coming towards us. If we don't get back where we belong they will just start firing at us. They will assume an SUV on the wrong side of the road driving towards them is hostile." So we crossed back over to the correct lane and proceeded to get into the "DoD" lane in which inspections are swifter, the dogs fewer, the delays shorter.

About a month ago, a car-bomb exploded between two SUVs at almost the same point where we crossed back. Since then, all the lanes leading up to the checkpoint have been framed with a solid wall of 12-foot high Texas Tees -- massive, concrete barricades four feet thick at the base. One now arrives at the checkpoint as if in a tunnel -- but no one can ease up beside you and set off a car-bomb. Once we got through the infamous BIAP checkpoint we were able to proceed at very high speed -- over 100 miles an hour. There was virtually no traffic, but the holes left by earlier car-bombs nearly caused John to lose control of the SUV on two occasions. The high speed is not just posturing. It's essential in order to throw off the timing of roadside bomb crews hundreds of yards away with a video camera ready to film your death for the CNN evening news.

As we neared the BIAP terminal itself, someone fired a six or seven second burst from an AK-47. I didn't know if it was fired at us, or by our side at the enemy, or whether anyone or anything was hit. I could tell by the decibel level that it was fired from pretty close by. John summed it up very neatly: "If the dudes don't hit our car, they don't count."

We finally pulled up in front of the terminal and our trip was over. It was a scary trip but I'm not sure that any of the scare was caused by actual danger. I suspect a lot of it was caused by our imaginations. I never saw a terrorist; I never saw anything get hit; I never saw anyone get hurt. Perhaps we could have taken a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive out to BIAP and no one would have done anything to harm us. Maybe there wasn't a soul out there. But maybe there was.

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