RUWAISHED, Jordan — It might be the most hairy truck route in the world — a nail-biting, long-haul, “Mad Max”-style endurance race from the Jordan border through the black heart of Islamic State territory.
Some days only dozens — some days hundreds — of truckers hungry for big paydays make the vital run to deliver everything from apples to antibiotics to Iraqi civilians, many of them living under siege in territory controlled by the radical Islamist group.
The truckers’ journey provides a window into a dangerous region that has become even more terrifying. Since the militants took over northern and western Iraq this year, the route has become, the wheelmen say, the highway through hell.
On the run to Baghdad, drivers face miles of empty, lawless road, prowled by brigands and militias, punctuated by rolling roadblocks operated by Islamic State militants in pickup trucks and purloined Hummers. The route to Mosul is worse, drivers say, following oil pipelines, narrow macadam roads and military tracks along the overrun Syrian border, with nobody left but Islamic State warriors and smuggling crews.
Sallah Ali Addin, an Iraqi driver from Fallujah, has been behind the wheel for a quarter-century in Iraq — from the Saddam Hussein era to the U.S. invasion and occupation, through a decade of Sunni rebellions, al-Qaeda uprisings and, now, the Islamic State. He said he has never seen the highways so perilous.
“There are Iraqi government troops. They are dropping bombs out of the sky. The cities are under siege. Checkpoints. Detours. You can’t go. There are bandits — everybody wants a piece of your cargo. And between the Islamic State and the Shiite militias, you are taking your life in your hands,” he said in an interview near the Jordan border.
The town of Ruwaished isn’t much to look at, but drivers such as Addin are happy to find refuge here on their way coming and going. It is a trucker’s town, dotted with military garrisons and a main drag of machine shops stacked with used spare tires and interspersed with stands selling liters of gray-market gas from Iraq. For as far as the eye can see, there is black basalt rock and sand and desert. It is freezing in winter. The drivers wear dishdasha robes and sandals, and their eyes are red with fatigue.
Another driver reminded Addin to mention the jets they hear streaking overhead, piloted by members of the U.S.-led coalition.
“Of course! The airstrikes scare us to death,” said Addin, who had just returned to Jordan after a 12-day run hauling fresh vegetables from the Jordan Valley to Baghdad.
A driver in his convoy, Nijm Mahmoud, called the Islamic State a “mafia.”
None of the Iraqi drivers interviewed had any firsthand knowledge of any trucker being kidnapped or killed, but they knew well the militants’ reputation for brutality.
“They can shoot you on the side of the road,” Mahmoud said. “No one can do a thing.”
The trucking route from Jordan to Iraq was once a prosperous route that generated as much as $1 billion in trade a year, according to some estimates. During Hussein’s rule, 2,000 trucks might have entered Iraq daily from Jordan, a number that gradually dropped to 400 in the years after the U.S. invasion, according to the Jordan Truck Owners Union.
Since the Islamic State captured Mosul and large swathes of Anbar province in June, the number of trucks crossing into Iraq from Jordan has plummeted to 30 on some days, according to Mohammed Kheir Dawood, the union’s head.
But as the conflict has deepened, demand for Jordanian goods has only risen in western Iraq. Importers, wholesalers, traders and even private individuals order thousands of tons of dry goods, pharmaceuticals, vegetables and building supplies — materials the besieged towns of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul are largely cut off from.
So a hard-core brotherhood of Jordanians, Pakistanis, Yemenis and, especially, Iraqis — many from hard-bitten Fallujah — still make the run, lured by the double and triple wages. They make sure to drive in convoys.
“Right now, Jordan is western Iraq’s lifeline,” Dawood said. “We warn them the road is very, very dangerous, but they can’t say no to the money.”
Drivers working the Iraq trade can triple their usual $280 monthly salary in a week. According to the union, shipping companies are also offering bonuses, hardship pay and additional allowances for food and fuel for wheelmen willing to work the route. Owner-operators who drive their own rigs, and who now dominate the trade, can make $2,000 for a run, though they say the drives that once took several days can now last a week or two.
“Is it dangerous?” said Abdul Kareem Athamat, a Jordanian driver who had just returned from a 10-day run from Amman to Basra in southern Iraq, carrying a load of potato chips. “Of course it’s dangerous!” he said as a machinist in oily overalls spot-welded a toolbox that had rattled loose from the undercarriage of his rig.
Athamat bought his own beater of a Mercedes-Benz 1635 rig six months ago to cash in on war-zone rates being paid to drivers who have the grit to make the trip.
“Where there’s fear,” he said, “there’s money to be made.”
Dawood said none of his members have been killed or kidnapped, as far as he knows. He was not sure about the Iraqi drivers who now dominate the trade.
On the Jordanian side of the border, security forces are omnipresent.
On the other side, it’s the Wild West.
The Iraqi government operates a lone outpost close to the Jordan border, where officials quickly inspect cargo and stamp passports. Then the truck drivers roll into Islamic State country. About 110 miles into Iraq, near the town of Rutba, the jihadists collect $200 to $300 from every driver.
“We cannot move forward or go back until we pay $300,” said Mohammed Omar, a veteran Jordanian trucker who has been making three monthly trips to Iraq since the Islamic State began seizing land. “They say it is the tax to enter the Islamic State.”
The truckers said they are given a receipt, complete with an Islamic State stamp, which they can show the next group of militants who stop them, to prove they paid their way. Before they reach checkpoints manned by Iraqi army regulars, they throw the papers away, they said, so they are not suspected of being Islamic State backers.
To get to Baghdad, the drivers cannot pass directly through Ramadi and Fallujah — where there are sporadic fights and roadblocks — but instead take a long detour south to Karbala. That route is notorious among the drivers here, who are mostly Sunnis. It passes through Shiite-dominant provinces and, they say, areas controlled by Shiite militias.
Even worse: The detour is a parking lot. One driver said it is not uncommon to spend days on it, stopping and starting, crawling along at a few miles an hour.
Drivers, once back in Jordan, seem almost giddy with relief and stoked by the wad of extra money they get paid.
Mohammad Abu Bakar was getting his truck washed after returning from Baghdad, where he delivered a load of pomegranates. He owns four trucks and hasn’t been home in months. He is from Fallujah but moved his three wives and children to Mosul before the Islamic State came to town.
“I’m providing goods for the Iraqi people. I am not for the Islamic State or the government or anybody,” he said.
But all drivers must pay.
“There is no discussion with these guys,” he said. “You see the road, it looks good, then they come out of nowhere. You pay. In the end, we work for whoever is carrying the guns.”