Road to Baghdad littered by war, paved with fear

Children beg for water amid burned-out vehicles and threat of violence

War In Iraq

April 11, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ON HIGHWAY 8, Iraq - The tanks and trucks and buses, shot up, burned out and spent, linger like ghosts on the median of the highway, along its sides and off to the distance, buried in the sand, dead.

The harm they represent is past. They are no longer frightening, compared to the cautious soldiers and their pointed guns or the helicopter gunships that fly so low above the road that it seems the children who jump at them could grab hold.

Highway 8, the road to Baghdad, is a well-worn stretch of pavement that wriggles through the sand like a desert snake. These days, it is not merely asphalt on which to travel north and south in Iraq; it is a graveyard for the dead, a stretch of fearful possibilities for the living, an ugly strip of black running through a bland, tan landscape whose only points of interest are the remnants of war.

Yesterday, its lanes were empty for miles in some stretches. Elsewhere they were packed with military vehicles, green and black and tan, many topped with large guns manned by baby-faced soldiers fighting their first war.

Occasionally, a lone truck or van packed with Iraqis and their belongings would drive past the military vehicles, and that confluence of U.S. Army and Iraqi civilian is what makes for the scariest parts of the highway, because what could happen is most always more frightening than what has occurred.

When an Army convoy stopped in the northbound lanes yesterday, the Iraqis stopped their cars about 100 yards away. Eventually, about a dozen drivers were resting their feet on their brakes, stretching their necks to see why the vehicles ahead were not moving.

Soon they got out of their cars; it was hot. Nobody understood what was happening, why they had to wait, but no one felt safe enough to drive on. Soldiers were on their stomachs and elbows on the pavement around the last truck in the convoy, pointing their guns at the Iraqis and whoever else came along.

When someone walked forward to ask the soldiers what was going on, whether they were simply supposed to drive past the convoy using the free lane to the right, all the soldiers yelled, "Stop!" and one dropped to one knee and raised the scope of his rifle to his eye and took aim at the people who had been confused and maybe a bit frustrated and who now were also scared to bits.

What the convoy had stopped for is a mystery. Military convoys on Highway 8 often stop in their tracks to add diesel fuel to their tanks; there are no gas stations for miles and miles during peacetime, and the few that had existed no longer do because they were blown up.

Each time the convoys stop, soldiers with rifles stand at the rear vehicle and the one leading the way, and other soldiers space themselves more or less evenly in between. Most of the soldiers watch the passing cars closely and that is all. Some soldiers raise their rifles and point them, ready to shoot.

The vehicles are large and move slowly, so civilians try to figure out how to pass without being threatening, try to gauge how much they can slow down without looking aggressive, and they often put a couple of tires on the berm to widen the berth.

The soldiers cannot really be blamed for being extra cautious. This is, after all, a war zone, and soldiers have been killed by drivers with bombs in their cars, and when you take an 18-year-old from, say, Oklahoma, and put him on the road to Baghdad, where the goal of many is to kill America, diligence becomes far more than a simple virtue.

The tense scenes are interspersed with the sight of children who gather in the dirt at the sides of the highway and flash priceless smiles and the V for victory sign, and sometimes blow kisses and raise a hand to their mouth as if they were drinking, to show the soldiers they are thirsty, to ask for water. Usually that does not work because the convoys are headed to Baghdad to resupply forces there or to deliver fresh troops or they are headed south to reload and move north again. Making good time is important.

But sometimes the children are too beautiful or too desperate or too much of both to be ignored, as in the southbound lanes yesterday about 30 miles north of Umm Qasr. Two soldiers spotted a few children on the side of the road and decided they could help, if only a little. They stopped their truck and gave them water, which brought other children running from far away, which happens a lot in Iraq.

Sometimes the children add to the tension on Highway 8, though, because they have a habit of scurrying on their bare feet from one side of the highway to the other, to make sure they are noticed. So there is a lot of braking on the highway, because seeing children of any age run across a highway, especially those as young as 4 and 5 years old, makes the heart jump, because of what could happen.

There is also a lot of braking on Highway 8 by people looking for signs that no longer exist. Roads and exits branch out, but rarely are there signs indicating where they are leading, so there is a lot of guessing on this road.

That can signify more than the inconvenience of extra minutes spent during a trip, because some of the branches lead to places such as Basra or Safwan or other cities where looting has been the initial reaction to freedom.

Bolder or more desperate people have been throwing stones and bricks through windows of cars and trucks, surrounding the vehicles and then grabbing whatever is inside. Sometimes they throw nails to flatten the tires so the cars and trucks have no choice but to stop.

If drivers stay on Highway 8, though, they can bypass those cities and get where they want to go, usually to Baghdad. Yesterday, there were not many people outside the military heading there.

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