boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Drive to Baghdad filled with tension

ON THE BAGHDAD AIRPORT ROAD -- Specialist Edward Gonzalez spun the turret around quickly and locked it into place with a loud clank, training his machine gun on the traffic behind him. The radio had just crackled with a warning: A suspicious vehicle was moving in close on the Army convoy.

"What kind of car was it, again?" Gonzalez, 28, of Alice, Texas, belted out, ducking his head momentarily into the rolling armored Humvee, which has "Big Country" emblazoned on the windshield. First Lieutenant Jeffrey Porter, 25, of Tomahawk, Ky., dropped the radio and turned to his left, calmly describing a white 1995 Volkswagen Brasilia and telling his gunner he had been warned that the car might be rigged with explosives.

Some people call this road, the only way from the airport to Baghdad's Green Zone, the most dangerous highway in Iraq. Lately, it has become a magnet for enormous, fiery explosions. People boast that they've traveled it and are relieved when they make it from one end to the other. To the Army, it's just Route Irish.

"There he is, there he is," Gonzalez said, turning the turret again. "He's coming up on the right side. He's ahead of the rest of the traffic. OK. He's pulling off at the exit. There he goes."

Every minute on this roadway is tense. From the beginning of November through last week, there were nearly 20 car bombings here targeting US convoys and government officials, leading the US embassy to warn its staff not to travel the road.

Army officers and soldiers with the 4th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment are charged with protecting Route Irish, and they say the road isn't nearly as bad as it is portrayed. They acknowledge that the attacks have created a significant perception problem, scaring people away from the route and causing the US military to sharply increase its number of patrols.

The 2d Brigade of the Army's 10th Mountain Division is planning to bring in another battalion of soldiers from the United States specifically to boost the military presence on the airport road. The plans are being developed, officials here said without providing specifics, but a few hundred more soldiers will probably be added soon.

Major James Fischer, the acting commander of the unit, said he believed the November car bomb attacks were part of a campaign of intimidation by insurgents. Several people were killed in the attacks, but most of the casualties were bombers.

"In the big scheme of war, it's nothing," Fischer, 39, of Jefferson, Wis., said of the attacks. "It's not as bad as it looks. Unfortunately, the enemy has caused a lot of people to worry. We're out there trying to keep it safe." While every death is a tragedy, he said, new procedures on the road have for the most part prevented additional casualties.

The Army previously sent regular convoys to patrol the road; now soldiers are armed to the teeth and bring along tank-tracked Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The Bradleys are equipped with special magnification tools that allow soldiers to peer into and under cars from a safe distance to determine whether they are a threat. New tactics have quelled most small-arms fire on the road, and improvised bombs are rarely planted on the roadsides because constant patrols have left insurgents without time to place them.

The car bombs, however, are a different story. There is almost nothing the military can do to stop suicide bombers, short of identifying them early, forcing the vehicles off the road or attacking them. The soldiers use profiles -- including certain makes and models of cars and nervous or erratic behavior -- to intervene as early as possible. They fire warning shots before putting bullets through a car's engine block. As a last resort, they will kill a driver if the threat appears great enough.

The explosions from the suicide missions leave blackened divots in the asphalt, and their sharp blasts rattle the windows and doors in nearby camps Liberty and Victory, where the soldiers live. The carcasses of civilian vehicles sit like smashed Matchbox cars on the road's shoulders. Safety fences along overpasses dangle amid broken metal poles, evidence of attacks from weeks or even months ago.

As soldiers pass by these landmarks, they remember those who were killed by the bombs, the moments of helplessness they felt as they saw vehicles careering toward them.

Gonzalez and Porter speak softly when they mention their harrowing experience with a car bomb on Nov. 6, an attack that killed an American gunner in a Humvee directly behind theirs.

"He was clean-shaven and in a white car," Gonzalez said, perched in his turret, the sun reflecting off his blast-proof sunglasses. "As soon as I saw him, I knew it. He was nervous. He swerved to the far right lane, and by the time he got to the convoy, I shot."

Gonzalez hit the driver in the chest with one round from his M4 rifle. By the time he had fired a second shot, the middle of the car was erupting in a ball of orange and white light. Gonzalez ducked and avoided injury. Gunners, who are shielded by armor plates but are slightly exposed, endure the most risk.

"I got two kids at home," Gonzalez said. "For a few days, I was worried about all of this. But it kind of fades with time."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives