Working the 'Road of Hell' With Iraq's Army

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 17, 2008 9:19 PM

HACHIM AL-SULTAN, Iraq -- Over 24 hours, I learned that in this place, your next step could easily be your last.

So there I was, with a colleague, staring at the gaping hole in the wall. On the other side was the school -- rigged with explosives, we were told.

In such situations, a moment can seem like eternity -- more so when you have watched a man dying in front of you or when you have come close to meeting death yourself. I had experienced both, less than 24 hours earlier.

The day before, I was walking on a dusty, rugged strip that local villagers called the Road of Hell. I was with Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce and our Iraqi translator, Zaid Sabah. We were embedded with the Iraqi army and had arrived with Gen. Ali Ghaidan, their top commander in Diyala province. The road was clogged with U.S. and Iraqi vehicles. The bomb sweepers were working. The sun was burning like a furnace.

Gen. Ghaidan and his entourage walked up and down the road. Then he left, leaving us with the Iraqi army's 1st Division, 3rd Battalion. Less than a half hour later, the explosions began. There was the detonated one, near where Ghaidan stood. Maj. Adil Muhammed, the head bomb sweeper, found it and quickly disposed of it.

Then there was the blast nobody expected. An American armored bulldozer had run over an anti-tank mine in a stretch of road that was supposedly clear. Minutes earlier, I had walked by that spot a couple of times, contemplating whether to interview the American soldier seated inside the bulldozer. I didn't.

When the explosion happened, Zaid and I were about 30 feet away. Andrea was inside a Humvee on the other side of the bulldozer. My first thought was that Andrea had been hit, and later Maj. Muhammed informed us that he and his men had thought the same. I ran toward the black column of smoke as injured Iraqi soldiers emerged. Fortunately, Andrea was unharmed.

"We saw a piece of tire fly into the air, and we thought she was killed," said Sgt. Hassan Shegas, 31, another bomb sweeper.

About an hour later, a white flatbed truck drove fast across the barren plains, bouncing like a boat on the high seas, heading toward the road. In the bed was Nazar Ayed, an Iraqi soldier in his 20s. A sniper had shot him.

When the truck reached the tangle of vehicles on the road, Ayed was motionless. His feet were yellow from a lack of blood. His comrades thought he was dead and left him on the stretcher. Ten minutes later, someone noticed that his heart was faintly beating and informed the Americans.

As Muhammed and other Iraqis watched, a group of U.S. soldiers quickly huddled around Ayed, struggling to revive him. They inserted an IV into his arms and closed his wound. Their leader, 1st Lt. Jeffery Wright, was not satisfied. The tall, wide shouldered Georgia native urged his men to focus on keeping Ayed breathing.

Two U.S. Blackhawk helicopters landed in a patch of sand and shrubs. Iraqi and American soldiers carried Ayed on a stretcher to the lead aircraft, then walked backed in silence, covered in dust. He died later.

At the wall of the school, these memories were speeding through my mind, mingling with concern of the unknown. Andrea was there, too, motionless.

A few minutes earlier, the last remaining residents of this wisp of a village that looked like a Spaghetti Western set had told us that they had seen insurgents walk into the school carrying explosives. Muhammed and Shegas had hopped over a wall a few feet away, instead of rushing through the opening. We thought surely that was a sign the school had been mined.

But then an Iraqi soldier ran through the opening and made his way to the school buildings. Then Zaid did the same. As he walked, he looked back at us.

Motionless, we stared at him. I wanted to reach out and pull Zaid back. But then he smiled.

"Come on, don't you want to do your reporting?" Zaid asked me.

Andrea and I looked at each other, our pride taking over.

We stepped into the compound.

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