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.
"What's that car doing there?" Harris asked, and then ordered his men to stop. Five soldiers jumped out and immediately began to question the driver. The driver said his car had stalled. The soldiers got behind the rear bumper and began pushing the car off the road.
Later, the soldiers linked up with an Iraqi army battalion in the Jihad neighborhood adjacent to the road. The Iraqi soldiers had set up a checkpoint to search vehicles entering the area.
"In order to control the route, you have to control the terrain on each side," Harris said.
The Iraqi soldiers, with a handful of U.S. troops by their side, walked the dusty dirt roads of the neighborhood. Weapons drawn, they searched alleys and courtyards. But mostly, they just walked, calling out greetings to Iraqis gathered outside their homes before the breaking of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The sweet scent of spice-infused meat and vegetables filled the night air, as women in black cloaks scurried home with stacks of piping-hot flat bread.
"If there's bad things on Irish, the neighbors on either side are influencing it," said Capt. Justin Reese, 30, from La Porte, Ind. Reese was the Charlie Company point man for the 6/8, in charge of helping the Iraqis secure the neighborhood. He stood side by side with Lt. Omar Tarik Ali, 24.
Ali said the Iraqi soldiers had been influential in helping control the neighborhood, keeping the potential attackers from using side streets to reach the airport road. "We are Iraqis, and we know strangers from their faces," Ali said. "We can stop them, and we know if they lie to us. The Americans don't know."
Harris, 43, from Santa Maria, Calif., said that limiting access to the road had been a key to controlling it. The soldiers put up fences and barbed wire to keep cars and pedestrians from reaching the road. They have also erected concrete barriers within the neighborhoods that surround it.
Harris called it Army 101.
"We'll never be able to stop everybody, but a guy who wants to come through is going to think twice about getting caught," he said. "If you have to defend an open area, you obstacle it. That's what we've done."
Soldiers who escort fuel tankers, trucks and other civilian cargo say they no longer fear this stretch of highway.
One morning, three soldiers from the 1-76 Bravo Battery, Field Artillery breezed down the road in a Humvee, escorting fuel trucks to an Army base near the airport. With Spec. Andrew Zotter, 25, of Katy, Tex., at the wheel, and Spec. Chris Beckett, 25, in the gunner's position, 1st Lt. Joshua Carter, 25, of Jonesboro, Ark., blasted the horn on the vehicle.
The men said they had been afraid of this route before they arrived in Iraq. They had heard the news reports about the dangers. But in 10 months, the only enemy fire they have seen on the airport road came after one of the civilian trucks they were escorting broke down, leaving them exposed for three hours. Someone in a passing vehicle fired at the troops, but no one was injured.
"It's pretty much one of the safest roads in Baghdad now. It didn't used to be," Carter said.
Beckett said he felt safe, "as safe as you can feel in Baghdad."
"They used to label this the one most dangerous road in Iraq," Zotter said, waving a white-paper report with all the significant activity from the last 24 hours. "It doesn't say that anymore."
The insurgents have gone north, the men said, to a different route with another name, this one called Sword by the military. "The enemy's just gone up the road," Carter said, before getting on the Humvee's bullhorn.
" Emshee !" he shouted in Arabic to the driver of a car parked by the road. "Go!"
The car moved along.