Easy Sailing Along Once-Perilous Road To Baghdad Airport

An Iraqi private, Thalid Mahmood Ahmed, guards a stretch of the Baghdad airport road, where attacks had long been a symbol of the U.S. failure to secure Iraq.
An Iraqi private, Thalid Mahmood Ahmed, guards a stretch of the Baghdad airport road, where attacks had long been a symbol of the U.S. failure to secure Iraq. (By Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)
By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005

BAGHDAD -- It used to be the most dangerous highway in Iraq, five miles of bomb-blasted road between Baghdad International Airport and the capital cityscape. It was a white-knuckle ride, coming or going. To reach Baghdad or leave it, you had to survive the airport road first.

For 2 1/2 years, the road was, in many ways, a symbol of the U.S. failure to secure Iraq. Military convoys roared past in a frantic attempt to escape the looming dangers of suicide bombers, grenades, rockets and booby-trapped litter. But insurgents' relentless attacks claimed a steady toll.

In April, 13 people died along the route, including an American aid worker, Marla Ruzicka, who was killed on a sliver of pocked pavement that intersects threadbare fields and modest cement homes. In the median, the flying-man statue -- a familiar landmark that pays homage to a medieval astronomer who tried to fly, and ultimately died, using homemade wings -- was the silent witness. People died on this road in fiery, awful ways, and the flying man seemed to take it all in.

Then, two months ago, the killings stopped. In October, one person was wounded on the road and no one was killed, according to the U.S. Army, which also calculated the April deaths. The turnaround was owed to simple, boots-on-the-ground military tactics, Army officials said.

Lt. Col. Michael Harris, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 6th Battalion, 8th Calvary Regiment, or 6/8, recalled a day this summer when a superior officer told him: "Mike, I've got the most strategically important mission in Iraq for you."

"Oh great, I get to go get Zarqawi," Harris recalled thinking. He was referring to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Then, the officer told him the mission: to secure the airport road, which had become a huge embarrassment for the military.

Harris started by slowing down the convoys, forcing soldiers to look out and see the passing landscape. Then he sent troops into the surrounding neighborhoods. Barriers went up, preventing cars and trucks from reaching the airport road unless they passed through a military checkpoint. The Iraqi army set up positions and stayed 24 hours a day.

"We've kept up a vigilant presence," Harris said recently. With his convoy parked underneath an overpass along the road, he was making another point: It was safe enough to stop here, to linger, to chat, and a computer screen flashed the statistical evidence.

Between April and June, 14 car bombs went off along the airport road, called Route Irish by the military. There were 48 roadside bombs, officially known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and 80 small-arms attacks. Sixteen people were killed.

In the past two months, there have been no car bombs and nine IEDs. One Iraqi soldier has been killed.

"Presence is definitely a key to our mission," said Pfc. Justin Wildey, 23, of Marietta, Ga. "In order to make everyone else safer, we've got to take chances. I don't have any problem with it; most of us here don't."

One night last week, with the sun just setting, turning the sky from blue to pink, the 6/8 poked down the airport road, looking.

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Map: Once Iraq's most dangerous highway, Baghdad's airport road is now one of the safest.
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