Live from Baghdad

My adventures in Iraq.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Commute

My time in Iraq really started with the first convoy from Camp Victory at the Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad. It's less than 5 miles as the crow (or mortar) flies and only marginally further by car. However, the road, designated "Route Irish" by the military, has been the site of a majority of the attacks by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), vehicle bourne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), and the ever-popular suicide vehicle bourne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). (Actually, my lieutenant colonel describes them as "homicide bombers" because "suicide bomber" puts the sympathy on the attacker.)

Anyways, for the last several months, the only way to make this run is either by military convoy or by armored vehicles driven by our Private Security Detail (PSD). Most of the PSDs I've come across are Brits, Scots, Aussies, and a lot of South Africans (but I still haven't found a rugby game in the Green Zone!) I went through Fort Bliss with several American PSDs but I don't know where they're all hiding. The armored cars are typically Ford Excursions, Chevy Suburbans or Toyota Land Cruisers custom built with 3-inch thick bullet-proof windows and steel plates surrounding the passenger compartments. Every car has at least two heavily armed PSDs and every convoy has at least three vehicles. I've actually seen a couple of SUVs that look like something out of Mad Max, with steel plates welded to the outside of the doors and a guy sitting in the back with a mounted 50 cal machine gun poking out the rear window. Must be a low-rent PSD company.

Back to the airport. There were six of us scheduled to head to the Green Zone so we took 4 vehicles. Two cars with 3 passengers each and two "shooter" vehicles. You wouldn't think you could be cramped in an Excursion but with the bullet-proofing and our flak jackets and helmets, the 3 of us were a little squished. Our co-pilot gave us the pre-flight briefing and, unlike my last Southwest flight, I didn't sleep through this one. In case our PSDs were incapacitated (kind of like decapitated?), he showed us how to work the radio, the satellite phone, and the speed dial on his cell phone. He also showed us where the safety was on his AK-47. If it ever comes to that, you get one guess where I'm pointing that first shot.

With the safety briefing over, our driver shuts his door and you can watch our PSDs transform into eagle-eyed, ass-kicking commandos. Suddenly all the cool bravado and careless humor they were showing seconds ago is switched off as they turn on. As we pull out of our small compound in the middle of Camp Victory, the PSDs are already using the communication that will get us through the Red Zone: "traffic to your left" "intersection clear" "slowing for bump". The four vehicles are spaced only meters apart to reduce our profile and prevent other cars from coming between us. Thus, the lead vehicle shouts a warning when it brakes for a speed bump or a stop sign.

In just a few minutes, we clear the gate and our driver floors the accelerator. The convoy blows onto Route Irish at 70mph, bumper to bumper, with local Iraqi traffic parting like the Red Sea before us. You can see that the locals are used to these mini-tanks and dive to the side of the road. We seem to be making good progress when, to my shock and horror, I see cars driving the wrong way on a 4-lane expressway and coming straight towards us. The PSDs don't seem to panic and, as I learn later, flow of traffic and lane right-of-ways do not really translate in this country. Apparently, it's quite common to drive "kamikaze" against oncoming traffic if you're side of the highway is blocked.

As we come around a bend, we discover the reason behind all the kamikazes. A traffic accident (suprise!) has blocked the road and traffic is stalled. An idling vehicle is a target around here so we execute a tight 3-point turn and join the kamikazes. Now we're heading back the way we came against traffic at 70mph. Once again, the locals are easily swerving out of our way. We come up on a highway off-ramp or, actually, an on-ramp from the normal perspective. Doesn't seem to bother our guys as we fly up it. The lead vehicle charges into the intersection at the top and blocks traffic as we make a hard left onto an overpass. On the other side of the overpass, the lead vehicle again sprints into the intersection and barricades the traffic. We swerve into another hard left as the road dips down below the freeway.

The cars brake hard as traffic is backed up at the next intersection. We sit for what feels like an eternity but was only a heartbeat or two before the convoy dives off onto the shoulder and forces its way towards the intersection. With the traffic stacked up around us and the convoy stuck in traffic, the PSDs are noticeably agitated. They motion for Iraqi pedestrians to move away from the vehicles and point their rifles at a man that doesn't move quick enough for their tastes. I may have imagined the small sigh of relief from the PSDs as a gap in traffic let them plow through another intersection. Traffic lets up a little and we pick up speed. We make it through a few more intersections and swerve left at an on-ramp back onto Route Irish. We've made it past the traffic jam and the way ahead is clear. We pass a small bus on the side of the road, twisted and charred, the victim of an earlier IED.

A few minutes later we clear a military checkpoint and we're safely within the Green Zone. The vehicles slow to a relative crawl and the PSDs are back to their jocular selves. The guys drop us at the Corps headquarters and we thank them profusely. They get out for a smoke break as they wait for the passengers who are headed out to the airport in a few minutes. Yeah, that's what they do every day.

Four days later, the embassies decided that Route Irish was too dangerous for civilians and everyone goes by helicopter now.