For Water Truck 103, a Perilous Path to the End
Ambush Greets Convoy At Site Near Baghdad

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

WITH CONVOY 77, Iraq -- A few miles west of Baghdad, a brand-new water truck backed gingerly off a flatbed truck and down a makeshift dirt ramp, completing its 7,000-mile journey from a factory in Texas to a government ministry in Iraq.

Considering the enormous effort the United States had made to get it to its destination, there was not much celebration among the small crowd of Iraqis who looked on as the truck was driven away. Nor was there any particular joy among the guards and drivers who had delivered the truck.

For them, it was just another job that had brought them up the highway from the Persian Gulf, through the austere desert of southern Iraq and the fertile farmlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Along the way, they had seen flocks of sheep and camels, escorted by ancient-looking men in red checked kaffiyahs and white dishdashas; barefoot children running up to the side of the road and waving for something to eat; crude mud houses that looked as timeless as the land itself. What they did not see were the men with fingers wrapped around the triggers of assault rifles.

Since the 2003 invasion, the U.S. government has allocated more than $20 billion to rebuild Iraq. The massive program, which ultimately benefits both the people with nothing and the people with nothing but guns, is actually a huge number of smaller tasks that begin with a decision by leaders in Washington. With the signing of an executive order, a complex chain of events is set in motion that, if all goes as planned, brings things from America to Iraq.

First, taxpayer dollars are transformed into trucks, toolboxes, building supplies, arms, ammunition, boots and uniforms, X-ray machines and hospital beds that are carried to Iraq mostly by an army of civilians -- inventory managers, stevedores, truck drivers and private security contractors -- whose largely unseen role in the war can be as dangerous as a soldier's.

This is the story of a tiny piece of that effort -- the 400-mile journey of a brand-new water truck from Umm Qasr, Iraq's main seaport on the Persian Gulf, to the Baghdad Water Directorate west of the capital. It was there that the men with guns were waiting.

Umm Qasr

The dusty white Klein K-250SS water truck with "103" written in red marker on its windshield sat on the back of a red flatbed truck in a yard in Umm Qasr, tied down with chains for the final leg of its journey.

Truck 103 began its life in Jacksonville, Tex., at the manufacturing plant of Klein Products Inc. It is valued at $120,707 and carries about 2,500 gallons of water, a useful purpose in a country where drinkable water can be scarce.

The truck wended its way by ship to the port of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where it was loaded with 26 other water trucks onto another long, black ship called the Strong American. From there, it moved up the Persian Gulf and through a short, artificial channel into the port of Umm Qasr, where it arrived on Feb. 25.

Umm Qasr, a charmless place with a skyline dominated by gray, blue and yellow cranes and rusting warehouses, is controlled by Shiite Muslims, the dominant sectarian group in southern Iraq. Many of the steel containers stacked around the port bear the logo IRISL -- Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

"God knows what they're bringing in here," Lt. Col. Jose Velazquez said of the country's Iranian neighbors as he drove around the port on a 108-degree afternoon. "There's no doubt in my mind that we have people with bad intentions in the port. But in the time I've been here, we haven't had any major issues."

American items coming into Umm Qasr move through a web of government agencies, contractors and subcontractors. At the top is Velazquez, with the Army Corps of Engineers' Gulf Region Division Project and Contracting Office, which is responsible for overseeing reconstruction efforts in Iraq. It contracts out the delivery of goods to a Kuwaiti company called PWC Logistics. PWC in turn coordinates among local ship captains and truck drivers who ultimately carry and deliver the items, and the private security contractors who protect them.

Umm Qasr is one of the main entry points for reconstruction items. It and the nearby port of Zubayr received more than 10,000 vehicles -- police cars, firetrucks, cement mixers, bulldozers and tractors -- in 2005 alone. All of the equipment eventually winds up in Iraqi hands.

"That's our main effort here: to push equipment out," Velazquez said. "There are people who have died doing this, but we are in a war. So we have to continue working to accomplish our mission."

With that, he signed off on the departure of Convoy 77: 12 water trucks, bound for the Baghdad Water Directorate and escorted by the 22 men of Team 7 of ArmorGroup International.

On the Road

The convoy rolled out on May 9 at 8:15 a.m. It consisted of 12 flatbed trucks and two spare cabs, escorted by four armored Ford F-350 pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in back, as well as an unarmed pickup that would drive ahead to discreetly scout out the route.

From here, Mark Jones was in command. His team consisted of 18 Iraqi employees and three British expatriates with a combined 42 years of military experience. Jones had served in the British army for 11 years before joining ArmorGroup, a company that protects many of the reconstruction convoys.

Though he has gone private and no longer wears a uniform -- except for a Union Jack patch and a small pin with the Welsh flag on his body armor -- he runs his team like a military unit.

"If it comes to small-arms fire, we keep on driving," Jones said in a rapid-fire briefing outlining the route. "If someone is injured, we're not going to stop inside the killing zone. If one of the vehicles is taken out, we'll do a crossover drill," in which one car comes up alongside the crippled vehicle, removes the passengers and continues the mission.

"If we have to stand and fight, we'll stand and fight."

Jones emphasized the possibility of violence -- "contact," in the military euphemism -- because the slow-moving convoys are often hit by bombs planted in the road or small-arms fire. The trucks can take plenty of punishment from rifle and machine-gun bullets and shrug off smaller bombs. But rocket-propelled grenades, RPGs, are a bigger threat. A direct hit can punch through even the armor of the pickups and incinerate everyone inside.

From the moment the convoy left the port, the team was on alert. As they traveled Main Supply Route Tampa, each truck's radio squawked with sights to look out for, whether debris, other traffic or suspicious "pax" -- a military word for people or passengers.

"Left side, vehicle, black, pax on telephone." Could he be calling insurgents?

"Two vehicles parked on left side, doors open." Gunmen?

"Static vehicle, right side." A car bomb?

"Bridge ahead." Any overpass is an ideal spot for an ambush.

"Two men with guns, right side! One has an RPG!"

"Eyes on!" Jones cried, and for a moment everyone expected an assault. But it was apparently just two U.S. soldiers on foot patrol outside Camp Cedar.

"Your mind moves quickly," Jones said. "You're not physically tired, you're mentally tired at the end of a run."

For all that wariness, the worst thing that happened to the convoy on the first day of its journey was a truck breakdown, a problem quickly solved by using the two spare trucks in the convoy to tow the cargo and the broken-down truck.

After six hours and 280 miles, the trucks pulled into Convoy Support Center Scania, a U.S.-run refueling base about 125 miles south of Baghdad.

"What a journey," Jones said. "That was one of the better ones."

Camp Scania

The Iraqi truck drivers, sweaty and tired, emerged from their trucks to get water and something to eat. Like most of his fellow drivers, Wahid Abid, the driver of the flatbed carrying Truck 103, was wearing white cotton pants and a white T-shirt. He was a Shiite from Basra and had been a truck driver since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"Yes, certainly it's dangerous," he said before settling down with a meal and climbing into the cab of his truck, where he would spend the night. "I've been forced to work, because we need to earn money to live. We have no jobs, just this work."

Jones and his three British teammates slept on bunk beds in a large tent inside the camp and ate at the American mess hall, a well-stocked place serving Cornish hen, french fries, fruit smoothies and Baskin-Robbins ice cream. But they were still in Iraq.

Unlike the American soldiers sitting around them, the four Britons said, they weren't in Iraq to serve their country, bring democracy to Iraq, win respect at home or even rebuild the country. They were motivated, they said, by the same thing as the Iraqi truck drivers.

"I done my time in the army," Jones mused in the mess hall. "I enjoyed it. But I asked myself, 'How much money am I making?' I can secure my future 20 times faster than I would in the British army. It's money. Nothing else. Money."

"And anyone who tells you different is a liability," added Leon Hart, his teammate.

Baghdad

After the broken truck was fixed, the convoy wound out of the concrete barriers of Camp Scania under an overcast sky at 7:25 a.m. the next day. They traveled north through the towns of Iskandariyah, Latifiyah and Mahmudiyah -- some of the most violent in Iraq -- but it was all quiet as the convoy arrived in the capital and pulled through the Baghdad Water Directorate's white gate into a large, walled compound.

After setting his gun trucks into defensive positions, Jones walked over to the manager's small office, dropped a bulky envelope on his desk and handed him the paperwork to sign for shipment No. 10,687.

"There are the keys for the trucks," Jones said.

Outside, Truck 103 was being unloaded. There was no ramp to back the trucks off the flatbeds, so an Iraqi bulldozer operator made one out of dirt. After several minutes of work, they had one that was sturdy enough for the truck to slowly back down to the ground. Mission accomplished. A little piece of America had been delivered to Iraq.

Jones walked back to his gun trucks, waiting for the rest of the cargo to be unloaded. It was slow work; more than an hour and a half passed. Iraqis from town came and went. The men of Team 7 relaxed and chatted.

It was at this moment that the men with guns chose to strike.

A rocket-propelled grenade streaked in from the north, exploding nearby with a deep crump. After a half-second of frozen inactivity, one of the guards screamed, "Get in the truck!" Seconds later, a group of seven to 15 men opened fire with assault rifles from buildings overlooking the compound about 100 yards away.

The usual order of things would have been to drive to the nearest American base, but the iron gate to the compound was closed, too thick to ram through, and the men were under fire. They had to stand and fight.

The trucks' machine guns returned fire, spraying the buildings with bullets, as Jones and two teammates took aimed shots from cover. The shooting from the other side died down.

Jones, waving his hands, shouted at his excited gunners to stop firing. He whipped out his phone and paced around behind his truck, calling for military support. All the Iraqi truck drivers from the convoy had vanished, as had the employees of the water directorate. An Iraqi guard who had been shooting at the attackers got into Hart's pickup truck, breathing heavily and shaking.

As he closed the door, gunfire broke out again -- first the pop, pop, pop of rifles, then the rapid thumping of the machine guns atop the pickup trucks. Once again, Jones and the men outside shot back.

"Jay, get in your wagon! Get in your wagon, Jay, we're moving!" Hart yelled at his teammate James Stevens, who then ran out to the gate to open it so the trucks could escape.

As the team laid down a few more shots, the pickup trucks raced out of the compound, turning right on the road and getting onto the main highway east, toward the U.S. base at Abu Ghraib. Across the road, the insurgents took a few parting shots at the convoy. A man with an RPG scrambled for cover as the gunners in the trucks fired at him.

The reports came in over the radio as they reached safety: They had killed two insurgents. The convoy had scattered to the winds; three or four of the Iraqi truck drivers were kidnapped before they could make it back to Umm Qasr. Everybody in the security team was alive, nobody hurt. And a water truck had made it to Baghdad.

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