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On Point

Danger on Route Irish


by Austin Bay
March 8, 2005


My Army staff section dubbed the dangerous high-speed dash through Baghdad "Route Irish Racing." Route Irish is the military code name for the 8 kilometers of highway linking Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) with the Green Zone.

When heavily armed and armored men cram into Ford SUVs, jam the pedal to the floor and weave through freeway traffic at 70 miles an hour, film fans may think Road Warrior or the Keystone Kops. However, the Road Warrior's auto macho and the Kops' slapstick car chases are misleading.

War in a sprawling, complex megacity isn't a movie that ends in two hours -- it's a relentless experience where training, courage and discipline are constantly challenged by fear and adrenaline.

In Baghdad, commuting is a combat operation, for both soldiers and civilians. Blame Saddam's henchmen and Al Qaeda fascists. These beasts have made the suicide car bomb their primary murder weapon.

Baghdad, like Houston and Los Angeles, is built for wheels. Narrow side streets feed boulevards, which feed expressways. Traffic moves day and night. This road net with a million vehicles is ideal terrain for an auto kamikaze. Roll up to a street corner and detonate -- instant atrocity, instant headlines, with media coverage being the murderer's strategic goal.

Stopping all traffic might halt car bombs -- just like locking everyone in their house might halt all street crime -- but terror's goal is political, economic and emotional paralysis. On Jan. 30, the Iraqi people demonstrated that they aren't paralyzed. These courageous people move, even under difficult and dangerous circumstances.

This brings us to roadblocks. Roadblocks put a crimp in the car bomber's plans. Roadblocks stop vehicles and people, particularly suspicious vehicles and suspicious people. In a war zone featuring auto kamikazes, roadblocks aren't user-friendly places -- and any honest adult will admit they aren't supposed to be. Iraqis complain about American roadblockss -- they're hassles. Iraqis complain more about terrorist bombs -- 2,000 Iraqis demonstrated against terror in Hilla last week to make that point.

At Route Irish's Green Zone exit, traffic slows to a crawl as it weaves through concrete barriers. Once stopped, young Americans and young Iraqi National Guardsmen -- their automatic rifles ready -- quiz drivers and scowl. It's understandable -- in late June, an Iraqi Governing Council official was assassinated at the barrier. A bomb-laden car slammed the councilman's vehicle and detonated.

Occasionally, temporary roadblocks halt Route Irish traffic. I recall a long wait in July as Iraqi police closed a lane and redirected non-military vehicles. Yes, I felt like a target -- it's a war zone, stay alert.

Route Irish's approach to BIAP is clearly marked with signs. Heavy trucks await inspection by troops. Concrete barriers divide the lanes.

The man driving the car carrying communist writer and newly released terrorist hostage Guiliana Sgrena didn't slow down as he approached a roadblock on the way to the airport. Perhaps he was afraid and fear led to speed, or perhaps he was laughing. Sgrena wrote that her car "kept on the road, going under an underpass full of puddles and almost losing control to avoid them. We all incredibly laughed. It was liberating. Losing control of the car in a street full of water in Baghdad ..."

Roadblocks have rules. Coalition and Iraqi troops operate roadblocks with Rules of Engagement (ROE). The ROE can change, based on current intelligence and command judgment.

But one rule never changes at a roadblock: Even escorted military convoys slow down as they approach a roadblock. As for a single civilian auto approaching at high speed? If a driver doesn't hit the brakes, the troops will shoot.

U.S. soldiers fired on Sgrena's speeding car as it approached their roadblock. The fire killed Italian security agent Nicola Calipari. His death is a tragic mistake. President Bush says we'll investigate the incident. I suspect Italian officers serving with multinational forces will help conduct that investigation. We need the facts.

But we also need a fact-based perspective. Though the Iraqi election and the democratic surge in Lebanon demonstrate that this most intricate war we're fighting has the potential for huge payoffs in hope, justice and peace, on Baghdad's streets a Fiat might still be a kamikaze. Or is it a family sedan? As the car rushes forward the soldier -- whose life is on the line -- has a split-second to decide.

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