‘Highway of death’ also artery of commerce|[2/6/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 6, 2006

BAGHDAD – The stretch of four-lane highway is only 10 or 12 miles long between the airport here and the downtown area, but it’s known worldwide as the deadliest drive a person can take. A hopeful sign is that it’s not as deadly as it was – indicating, perhaps, that those determined to make the international coalition’s presence in Iraq as uncomfortable as possible have moved on to other venues or, better yet, been substantially weakened.

Along the route, something else becomes strikingly apparent. This is also a &#8220normal” road. It is bordered by people’s homes and traveled by everyday folk just trying to get to and from their jobs – whether by Mercedes, bicycle or on foot. And not all of them are Iraqis. On my trip down the road, the other passengers were three young American women whose duties in the reconstruction effort meant they had to travel to town from the suburbs that day. Routine, except maybe for the helicopter gunships overhead.

Aegis, a British company, is one of two contract security companies hired by the Army Corps of Engineers. It had been arranged that I would ride the 8:30 a.m. shuttle from Camp Victory to the Gulf Region Division HQ, so I showed up at the appointed time in my borrowed armored vest and helmet.

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Four vehicles lined up in the compound staffed by eight men. I could tell each had two weapons, a rifle and a sidearm, and no telling how many more out of sight.

They were lighthearted and cordial, yet serious. They wrote down my name and blood type and by radio confirmed that military medivac helicopters were up and flying. There were only three points in the curbside briefing.

Wear the seat belt at all times; don’t leave the vehicle for any reason unless told (by them) to do so; and if we heard, &#8220Contact – Down, Down, Down,” to get as low in the vehicle as possible.

The lead and rear vehicles were Suburbans with twin, rear-facing gun ports. The four passengers were in the back seat of two Land Rovers. We were told all were armored and could withstand gunfire and &#8220smaller” roadside bombs. The tires were &#8220run-flat” models that could keep going 20 miles after being shot.

Emily from Kansas City was my passenger partner. She was small and pretty, probably about 22. En route, she was calmly using her cellphone, apparently to text message.

Outside the windows, there was an increasing amount of residential development as the drivers executed precision &#8220avoidance” maneuvers. One woman was sweeping. A cluster of children appeared headed for school.

Much has been made of the &#8220inability” of the armed forces to guarantee the safety of this route. The reason is obvious. It’s a matter of keeping relations with the locals as amicable as possible. This is an artery of commerce. And that means insurgents, from time to time, will take potshots from the residential areas or leave explosive-laden vehicles or camouflaged bombs on the roadside.

As we approached the checkpoint into the city, we were directed into multiple lanes for a final search. The Aegis team was steered to the fastest-moving, while local vehicles were stopped for complete inspections and pedestrians were padded down. Signs made clear, as if the men manning machine gun nests didn’t, that we were in a &#8220shoot to kill” zone.

A cat meandered through the concrete barricades and maneuvered warily to the other side of the road.

It wasn’t black.

I was glad.