Securing Baghdad's Airport Road Easier Said Than Done

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The road connecting Baghdad to its international airport may be the deadliest eight-mile stretch in Iraq. Efforts to secure the highway haven't managed to end insurgent attacks.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

It's been a deadly couple of days in Iraq. Bombings, suicide attacks and shootings around the country have killed nearly 50 Iraqis and at least nine American troops. Today, three US soldiers were killed in central Baghdad when a car bomb exploded near their convoy. Another soldier was shot while he was sitting in the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle at an observation post. Also today, the group al-Qaeda in Iraq posted a message on the Internet saying that its leader, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, has been wounded. The authenticity of that posting could not be verified.

BLOCK: One of the deadliest places in Iraq is the roughly eight-mile road to Baghdad airport. It's been the scene of countless attacks by insurgents, many of them using roadside bombs. NPR rode along with a US patrol on the airport road, and Peter Kenyon has this report.

(Soundbite of engine)

PETER KENYON reporting:

Early last Sunday morning, soldiers from Bravo Company 2156(ph) pulled out of their base in three armored Humvees.

Unidentified Man #1: All right. You-all have a hunky-dory day. You-all going out?

Unidentified Man #2: Roger. All right.

KENYON: The Humvees rumble along the main airport road at about 15 to 25 miles an hour, air conditioners at full blast on the first of 16 laps around this four-lane divided highway pockmarked with craters and other battle scars. Clifford Achman(ph), a 34-year-old first sergeant from Louisiana, says he never knows what he'll find out here, which stalled or parked vehicle might turn out to be a death trap waiting to go off or where the insurgents armed with machine guns or rocket-propelled grenades may be lurking.

First Sergeant CLIFFORD ACHMAN (Bravo Company 2156): On Thursday, we received two RPGs fired at one of the Bradleys. Upon reacting to the fire, we received machine-gun fire from another flank. It was a trap; it was a vehicle placed on the side of the road. It detonated, a direct hit on one of our vehicles.

KENYON: Achman gestures with his hands to describe how the fireball penetrated the armored Humvee from above, through the open turret where the gunner stands, scorching the interior and everyone inside in an instant.

1st Sgt. ACHMAN: The vehicle carried the fireball through. It was able to drive itself in on two flat tires.

KENYON: Surprisingly, the soldiers inside suffered only minor burns and were back on duty within 24 hours, just another day on Baghdad's airport road, or Route Irish as the military calls it.

1st Sgt. ACHMAN: This is a pretty good view of Route Irish here from the overpass.

KENYON: Overpasses and exit ramps are especially vulnerable to attacks, according to the military. It was on one of these ramps on the night of March 4th that US soldiers fatally shot an Italian military intelligence officer and wounded an Italian journalist who had just survived a kidnapping ordeal. It was the US military's own investigation of that incident that revealed that even as American officials were heralding the decline in insurgent attacks that followed Iraq's January elections, violence on the airport road not only continued, but increased in effectiveness. The report says between last November and mid-April, there was a minimum of one attack or hostile incident a day. In a section labeled `Atmospherics,' the report says the highest concentration of bomb attacks occurs at 10 in the morning with another peak coming at 4 in the afternoon. That coincides with the departure and arrival of convoys at Camp Victory, the largest military base in Baghdad, which surrounds the airport. At night, the most dangerous time is between 7 and 9 PM.

In a chilling comment, the report noted that one reason investigators were unable to fully reconstruct the Italian agent's shooting was the inherent danger in being there. The joint investigative team cut its visit to the scene short when a hand grenade landed among them, wounding one soldier.

(Soundbite of radio chatter)

Unidentified Man #3: Eastbound, high rate of speed, white and orange-fendered car. Over.

KENYON: By midday Sunday, the patrol has its eyes on a car driving erratically and decides to investigate. Sergeant Achman describes the maneuver that halts the vehicle.

1st Sgt. ACHMAN: See how they're pinning him in from both sides? Just that fast they're able to move in and capture a vehicle.

KENYON: This time it turns out to be two Iraqi policemen in a civilian car. The soldiers resume their patrol.

(Soundbite of radio chatter; traffic noise)

KENYON: For Iraqis living near the airport road, explosions have become part of the daily soundtrack. The south wall of Dr. Ali Assim's(ph) house faces the road. He says so many of those windows have been blown out that the man at his local glass shop knows exactly when to have his replacement panes ready and waiting. Thirty-five-year-old businessman Omar Ayad(ph) says living near the airport probably isn't any more dangerous than a lot of Baghdad neighborhoods, but driving on the airport road is suicidal. Still, he hasn't been able to keep off it entirely.

Mr. OMAR AYAD (Baghdad Businessman): Yeah. Once I was driving at about 10:00 and there's no lights at all, there's no electricity. And suddenly, I just saw a flash of light and a sound of bullets. I didn't recognize that the bullet hit the car about 5 centimeters above my head until I reached my home and I see the place of the bullet.

(Soundbite of hammering noise)

Unidentified Man #4: You-all thinking what I'm thinking?

KENYON: As part of the airport road patrol, the soldiers make regular stops to talk with local residents and shop owners. This auto repair garage has been under surveillance as a suspected car bomb factory. Before them sits a white Toyota stripped of just about every ounce of weight not essential to moving the car. There's just one seat of sorts: a scrap metal plate welded where the driver's seat used to be. Achman says this could be a bomb in the making.

1st Sgt. ACHMAN: It's standard procedure for these guys to rip out everything inside of the vehicle to lighten it as much as possible. They increase the shocks so it can sustain a load and basically, they hide anything inside low profile below the windows.

(Soundbite of hammering noise)

KENYON: The soldiers don't arrest anyone here. They leave as if they've seen nothing out of the ordinary in hopes of catching the bomb-builders in action, probably at night. As he leaves, Sergeant Achman quietly adds that he hopes they don't lose any more soldiers or any more Iraqis in the meantime. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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