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Guarding Baghdad's Highway of Hazards

"He was clean-shaven and in a white car," Gonzalez said, perched in his turret, the sun reflecting off his blast-proof sunglasses. "As soon as I saw him, I knew it. He was nervous. He swerved to the far right lane, and by the time he got to the convoy, I shot."

Gonzalez hit the driver in the chest with one round from his M4 rifle. By the time he had fired a second shot, the middle of the car was erupting in a magnificent ball of orange and white light. Gonzalez ducked and avoided injury. Gunners, who are shielded by armor plates but are slightly exposed, endure the most risk.

Soldiers searched for insurgents after a car bomber rammed civilian cars last month on Baghdad's airport road, one of Iraq's most dangerous. (Hadi Mizban -- AP)

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"I got two kids at home," Gonzalez said. "For a few days, I was worried about all of this. But it kind of fades with time."

Porter said the road can be dangerous, but that attacks are sporadic and largely ineffective against armored U.S. vehicles. A recent explosion merely scuffed a Bradley, and two explosions last week blew out the tires of Humvees and pockmarked the heavy armor plates that surround their frames.

The troops are vigilant, slowly stopping to assess broken-down vehicles, cars parked at odd angles along a residential section of the road near the city, or debris that looks like it could be a bomb. On a patrol last week, Porter hopped out of his seat when the convoy spotted two men on the side of the road huddling around a white jalopy. Dwarfed by a Bradley, the car was inspected by Porter and two other soldiers before it was deemed safe.

"They just ran out of gas, I think," Porter said. "We'll try to get them some help."

A four-door sedan being pushed along an entrance ramp -- which soldiers say is not an extremely unusual sight -- drew some attention, as did a car idling on the side of the road, parked up against a palm tree. One man ran out into the middle of the highway to explain why his car was sitting in the left lane.

The Army routinely patrols through the neighborhoods that line the highway. Soldiers have discovered in recent weeks that insurgents have used nearby middle-class neighborhoods to stage attacks, meeting along residential side streets before driving out onto the highway.

On this afternoon, soldiers rumbled through the Al Ameriya neighborhood that lines Route Irish. The homes are walled-in, some with delicately ornamented gates, and they house doctors and lawyers and engineers. The soldiers are so familiar with this trek that some stopped and said hello to the residents, carrying on conversations that picked up where they left off a few days ago. Cats slipped over stone and stucco walls, palm trees swayed in the breeze.

Sgt. Ahmad Ansari, 21, of Eagan, Minn., found himself in the position of interpreter, not because it's his job but because he speaks Arabic. It was his idea for the soldiers in Delta Battery of the 216th Air Defense Artillery Battalion, a Minnesota National Guard unit from Monticello, to wear Iraqi flags on one arm of their uniform and U.S. flags on the other, in an effort to show Iraqis that they care. Ansari connected with several residents as he patrolled, trying to gather information.

"There are many thieves," said Fatima Saeb, 14, standing at the gate to her home with her younger brother. Fatima, who speaks English, said her parents would not let her walk outside because children have been kidnapped and held for ransom. The thieves -- her word for the insurgents -- are often in the neighborhood, she said. "My parents told me not to talk to the U.S. Army, but I'm not afraid."

The Bradleys and Humvees stopped periodically so soldiers could inspect license plates, running them against a list of known or suspected bombers. The insurgents rarely hold on to cars very long, so it can be futile to search for specific vehicles.

Samir Hamid, 54, walked out of his makeshift sidewalk store to speak with Ansari about the scarcity of electricity in the neighborhood and about how bad things have become since the war began. Hamid, an electrical engineer, now sells bags of chips, cigarettes, fly swatters and chocolate bars out of his garage to stay afloat.

"Of course, we're the victims," Hamid said.

As the soldiers left Al Ameriya to head back out onto the highway, they stopped again and inspected a black car that they said might belong to an insurgent, or perhaps to a family. Ansari looked to the left side of the street, where white graffiti marred a green wall.

"Jihad is the answer in Fallujah," Ansari translated. Someone had spray-painted a large black line through the words.

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