A Dangerous Highway in Iraq In the latest Reporter's Notebook, NPR's Emily Harris describes the dangers of traveling along Iraq's main north-south highway

A Dangerous Highway in Iraq

Pulling up behind a convoy on Iraq's main north-south highway can be a nerve-shattering experience. Emily Harris, NPR News hide caption

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Emily Harris, NPR News

It is impossible to drive on Iraq's highways and not see U.S. military convoys. The main north-south route is packed with them -- escorting tankers full of much needed gasoline, transporting supplies from food to mail. It is unadvised to drive near or next to the convoys, as they are often targets of homemade bombs or machine gun fire. And they are frustrating to get stuck behind, because they frequently go only about 40 miles an hour.

I had spent the day Tikrit seeing a car that had been ripped through three days before by high-powered machine gun fire, viewing the body of a passenger who had been shot in the head, and talking with the sole surviving traveler, a 31-year-old man named Ibrahim Alawi Ahmed. Ahmed says he and four other people were in a private taxi, traveling through Tikrit, when the car came up behind a five-car convoy driving down the middle of the road. This is a protective practice U.S. troops use to keep potential attackers from coming up next to the convoy. But sometimes they do wave cars to go ahead and pass.

This is what Ahmed says happened. A soldier on the last vehicle signaled it was ok to pass. His vehicle moved right. The taxi, Ahmed says, drove forward on the left. It passed one, two, three, four military vehicles. Then the lead one opened fire. The U.S. military says it has no indication U.S. troops were involved, but is investigating.

Ahmed survived by ducking under the dashboard. The gruesome incident was on my mind as, driving home, we saw a military convoy on the highway ahead. It was getting dark, and everyone was in a hurry. I could tell our driver was itching to pass.

A driver on our left was behaving strangely. He drove up right on the tail of the convoy, seemingly to pass. The machine gunner on the back -- there is almost always a machine gunner on the back -- waved to stay back. The driver retreated, but then came forward again, in an almost taunting manner.

I heard two shots. I don't know where they came from or if they hit anything, but my companions thought they were probably warning shots from the Americans. I was off the back seat and on the floor pretty darn quick. Samar, a translator who works with NPR, said not to worry, the troops were shooting at the other car.

I suggested we worry enough to drop back and put more cars between us and the convoy. But you can't slow down too much -- or another convoy will come up from behind! I got off the floor, we let about a dozen cars pass us and went ahead slowly until the whole pack stopped abruptly and two more shots rang out.

Then a second convoy appeared on the other side of the highway. This is a four-lane road, two lanes in each direction, with a flat graveled space acting as the divider. About five cars had headed across that flat divider and were trying to pass the first convoy by driving on the wrong side of the road. (A very normal practice here.) The second convoy sort of trapped them. Four more shots were fired. I could not tell why.

That jam cleared. Now there were helicopters buzzing overhead, dipping low over the cars stuck behind the convoy. Samar thought he heard a helicopter shoot. Eventually, the convoy went one way and we another. But it was a long drive back to Baghdad.