Making the Journey to the Syrian Border

The drive from Baghdad to Syria — through the Sunni Triangle — is a dangerous trip for an Iraqi Shiite. But equipped with tips, trade secrets and a good driver, former NPR Iraqi staffer Abdulla Mizead has made the trek.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of NPR's former Baghdad bureau staffers, Abdullah Mizead, recently traveled overland from Baghdad to Syria. The highway goes through Anbar province, part of what is known as the Sunni Triangle. This is a dangerous place for Iraqi Shiites, so think of what follows as a kind of lonely planet travel guide for those determined enough or desperate enough to make the trip.

ABDULLAH MIZEAD: There are several points you should consider when traveling through the Sunni Triangle. One, you should use a Sunni driver, preferably a professional one from a well-known tribe. Two, your ride should be a nice SUV, but not too nice or it will attract bandits. Three, you should expect to be stopped on the way and asked religious questions. They intent, of course, is to figure out whether you're a Sunni or a Shia.

Our driver, Abu Hamid(ph), arrived at our house at 5:30 in the morning. He insisted that we leave at dawn in spite of my concern that it's dangerous to drive that early. A well-experience driver like Abu Hamid knows the road better than I do. Just west of Baghdad, as we passed through Abu Graib, cars start backing up, forming a long line at an Iraqi army checkpoint. From the length of it, you'd think everyone was leaving Baghdad. Hundreds of SUVs, Chevy Caprices, and buses jockeying for position as if they were racing to get out of the capital. Then we came up behind a joint Iraqi-U.S. Army convoy. It slows us to a crawl; attempts to pass it proved futile. Some drivers tried using the other side of the road, but that brought warning shots from the soldiers and they dared go no further.

After several hours of the sluggish pace, we were stopped by men wearing different police and army uniforms; some with their faces covered. These were new recruits, part of the so-called Al-Anbar Salvation Council headed by Abdul Satar Aborisha(ph). Aborisha is a tribal leader who months ago started to cooperate with U.S. forces and the Iraqi government in fighting al-Qaida and other insurgent organizations. Amazingly, he has made a difference. Our driver told me that last year it was very dangerous to drive through Al-Anbar. Passengers were robbed, kidnapped, and even killed.

The difference made by Al Anbar Salvation Council can be felt first hand. They actually protect the roads from Fallujah to al-Anbar armed with machine guns and driving brand-new Ford trucks. They seem to know the area better than anyone else. It is after all their home province.

Before we got close to the border, all vehicles stopped at a restaurant. We stretched a bit and had a meal, which I don't recommend for health reasons. Then we changed the tags on our cars. I asked our driver what he was doing as he pulled out two red license plates from under his seat. He then told me the secret of how to cross border into Syria.

According to border regulations, vehicles with temporary registration papers are not admitted into Syria, and because most Iraqi vehicles carry the black temporary plates, drivers have to change them. After the U.S. invasion, new cars flooded Iraq and the country was unable to properly register them all. Of course both sides of the border are familiar with this trick, but life goes on.

The Iraqi side of the border doesn't present much of a problem. Ten dollars ensures a swift passage. The Syrian side is different: pay, pay, and pay. They don't even wait till you offer a bribe. They just asked you for it. Controlling and protecting the Iraqi border seems almost impossible with the level of rampant corruption and incompetence. There are a few U.S. troops stationed on the border, but they didn't seem to pay much attention to the traffic coming from Syria. To be honest, the trip wasn't as scary as I had anticipated, but for a Shiite, as long as you are within the Sunni Triangle you should expect the worst.

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INSKEEP: Abdulla Mizead is a former NPR Baghdad bureau staff member. He brought many of the correspondents that you know safely in and out of Anbar province.

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