BAGHDAD, Dec. 2 -- Citing security concerns, the U.S. Embassy on Thursday banned its employees from using the highway linking the embassy area to the international airport, a 10-mile stretch of road plagued by frequent suicide car-bomb attacks.
The move, which followed similar action by the British this week, reflected the growing difficulty that U.S. forces are having ensuring safe passage along the high-profile route. Precisely because of the road's importance, insurgents have shown increasing boldness and ferocity in targeting vehicles used by U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors.
U.S. soldiers cleaned the highway to Baghdad's international airport on Oct. 20 after a suicide bomb attack. The road is a frequent target of insurgents.
(Khalid Mohammed -- AP)
A large armored bus, nicknamed the Rhino, had been carrying passengers to and from the airport. But it stopped operating last week after being struck by a car bomb. No one on the bus was injured, but its engine was damaged.
An embassy spokesman said Thursday that U.S. personnel who need to travel between the airport and the embassy, which is in the heavily fortified area known as the Green Zone, would be transported by helicopter.
U.S. military commanders here acknowledged frustration at having been unable to secure the highway, but they said it was not for lack of effort. U.S. forces have tried a number of security measures over the past year, only to see insurgents adjust their tactics and pose fresh threats to traffic.
"The enemy started last autumn with small-arms fire," said a U.S. general involved in the issue. "Our counter was to use armored vehicles and set up checkpoints. They countered with roadside bombs. We countered with sweeps, which have been very effective.
"Now their counter is suicide vehicle bombers, which began about two months ago. That's a tougher thing to counter, because they're using regular cars with well-concealed explosives that can blow at any time."
The Army's 1st Cavalry Division has about 1,000 soldiers dedicated to guarding the highway, which the U.S. military refers to as Route Irish. Still, suicide attacks there have averaged several a week.
Many of the car bombs appear to have been hastily assembled, or the attacks have been poorly executed, resulting in relatively small explosions, U.S. officers said. But while the casualty tolls have tended to be relatively low -- less than four dead or injured per attack, on average -- the impact on public perceptions has been high.
"It is a symbolic route, the attackers trying to draw attention and publicity," another senior U.S. officer said.
In recent days, high-ranking U.S. and Iraqi officials have been hammering out a plan to defend against suicide bombers. But devising a military solution has been complicated by political and economic considerations.
"Militarily, we could solve it tomorrow by shutting down the road to nonofficial travel," said another general familiar with the deliberations. "But that would be a terrible message. Economically, such a move would hurt efforts to revitalize the airport. Politically, it would hurt the Iraqi government's effort to show that it is gradually exerting control over the insurgency."
One option under consideration calls for shutting down one side of the highway, which is two or three lanes wide in each direction, and reserving it for official traffic. Another option involves construction of a protected lane up the middle of the highway. Still another possibility envisions checkpoints at exits and entrances.
All would involve varying degrees of inconvenience to nonofficial traffic and higher costs, and would run a risk of alienating some Iraqis.
"Iraqis will see this as another sign of the Americans caring only about themselves," said a senior Iraqi officer who has discussed the matter with U.S. commanders.
Several U.S. officers said an agreement was near on a course of action. They said an effort would be made to portray whatever measures are implemented as benefiting not just U.S. personnel but the many Iraqi civilians who use the road and often bear the brunt of the bombings. More civilians than U.S. troops have been killed as a result of the car bombs, according to a U.S. military spokesman.
A senior U.S. officer involved in coordinating the new security measures for the highway predicted they would not likely be the last.
"It's a dynamic process that essentially never stops," the officer said. "There is no one solution that's going to solve this."