It’s hot in Iraq; not hot like Arizona, not hot like Death Valley. Furnace Creek, California is a poor cousin to the scorching heat of Iraq. The fluid in your eye sockets dries up. Your lips are cracked and parched. Your mouth feels like you’ve been eating cotton. Sand blows across the roads and piles up on everything. Many times, the sky is filled with blowing sand and forms a brown haze that obliterates the sun. On windy, cloudless days, the sun looks more like the moon in a daylight sky, a faint orb.
The air chokes the lungs of the newcomer. Desert temperatures routinely exceed 130 degrees. You drink water by the gallon, 130-degree water. It evaporates off your body as fast as you pour it down. Except for the drenching wetness beneath your thirty-pound flak vest, your sweat evaporates instantly. When you remove the vest, you are almost embarrassed by the soaking wet dishrag that your shirt has become. Not to worry; you will be dry in minutes.
Want to know what it’s like in Iraq? Fill your oven with sand, put a fan inside, turn on the heat full blast and stick your head in. Every breath is super-heated, sand filled air. You can’t imagine how anyone survives this hellish climate. Iraq is steeped in biblical history. Forty days and forty nights takes on entirely new meaning. How in, yes, God’s name, did anyone travel this region on foot. And many, astonishingly, still do!
The debilitating effects of the climate shock army units arriving from the states. When they departed their home base, they were full of vim and vigor and ready to bring death to the insurgents. Everyone thought they knew what to expect. They believed they were prepared. They quickly learn that it can’t be imagined. It can’t be trained for. It can only be experienced. One Army unit, freshly arrived in Kuwait, had over fourteen heat casualties on their first day, before crossing the berm.
There are many terms for the border crossing from Kuwait into Iraq. Sometimes it’s called “going through the gate” still others refer to it as “crossing the berm”. A sand berm and barbed wire ditch divides the country of Kuwait from the badlands of Iraq. Everyone who crosses the berm feels a chill go through them. They know that any moment thereafter they may be under fire. They may see a brilliant flash of light in a split second as an IED detonates on a vehicle in their convoy, maybe their vehicle. The 50 caliber machine gunner standing up in the Humvee knows that he risks being sliced into two pieces if he is standing up and fails to see hidden explosives on the road ahead. Gunners now hunker down behind a steel turret until enemy contact is made. There are no safe havens in Iraq. Only a fool assumes some area of the country to be safe. Every day such assumptions are proven false.
In Iraq, there are 70-80 insurgent attacks a day. On any given day, you may hear about three or four of them in the news. Most of these incidents don’t make the main street press. Most media people are bedded down at hotels in Baghdad. If they learn of an insurgent attack at the local marketplace, they rush down, with plenty of security vehicles to file their “on the spot” report. They are not privy to the information on the dozens of attacks elsewhere in Iraq. The coalition forces are not inclined to tell them what they don’t know. Even if they were informed, few would venture the high risk trip to the scene.
About a mile into Iraq you come into the town of Safwan. Life is cheap here. It is not just that insurgents lurk behind buildings and berms, it’s also the bandits who will kill for almost anything of value. It is a lawless region: insurgents, bandits, thieves, aka: alibabas, and kids. The kids ride their bikes along next to your vehicle trying to cut a deal for anything you may want. This town took a physical beating during both Gulf wars and not much has changed since. As you journey north, encountering danger is not only possible, it is probable. You had better be mentally prepared for every imaginable ruse, and some that are not imaginable. You are in Iraq. This is the war zone.
Herds of camel and sheep wander the desolate countryside. Bedouins tend to their herds without notice of the passing convoys of trucks carrying supplies to sustain the war and rebuild the country. Beetles plant their eggs in camel dung and roll them into a protective fold, not dissimilar to a taco. Baby camel spiders, which are known to grow over a foot in diameter charge at you, stop, and suddenly retreat as if they sized you up and determined that you are not an appropriate meal. Lizards, called dubs, scurry around the desert chasing god knows what. They are quick, but they only have enough energy for a forty yard dash. Keep them from retreating to their hole and they will quickly exhaust themselves. After their dash, you can then walk up to them, pick em up, and dine on their chicken flavored tails.
In southern Iraq, the only water you see is the shimmering, turquoise water of the aquaduct that, periodically, can be seen alongside the road. You might muse over the thought that it is a wonder the water hasn’t totally evaporated in the incredible heat. Everywhere is sand and limestone gravel. Remnants of war are ubiquitous: a burned out Iraqi tank here, a blown up building there, hundreds of rusting war vehicles clumped together. These are graveyards of sorts. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers died in them during the first and second Gulf conflicts. Iraq is littered with grim reminders of war.
People are living in the skeletons of one story buildings and some have just pitched a tent, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Nearly all have a satellite dish. A van will be pulled over to the side of the road and you will see five or six women, dressed in their black garb, kneeling on a rug in the sand. Often, they have stopped for prayer. Sometimes they are eating, a roadside picnic of sorts. Remember, it’s a hundred and thirty degrees.
As you approach small towns children appear everywhere along the road. They wave and extend their hands, looking for whatever tokens you might toss them. When you throw them a water bottle or candy bar, they will quickly put it with the rest of their stash in a hole or behind a berm and run back to the road to continue begging. Sometimes, when you don’t give them anything, you can watch in your sideview mirror as they extend their middle finger at you. If you stop in a town, even what appears to be a deserted town, a child or two will approach you immediately begging for a handout. You’d better have a case of handouts because within seconds there will be dozens of children appearing out of thin air.
In the small towns and the cities, you occasionally spot a couple of military vehicles stopped with children gathered around the soldiers who are passing out candy or bottled water or Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). Soldiers can’t seem to resist kids. All kids, but especially children in a war zone seem to tug at the heartstrings of Americans. Some soldiers have lost their lives while performing these humanitarian gestures. It’s unlikely that they will ever stop treating children with kindness, regardless of the threat.
You come upon the remnants of a burning fuel tanker, obviously from an earlier convoy. It was hit by an IED. You slow down and pass cautiously. There are no security forces in the area. The truck is engulfed in a ball of flame. As you cruise by and feel the searing heat, you notice a dozen alibabbas working feverishly. They are stealing everything and anything of value on the truck. Several are removing the tires before they melt. Two or three are waiting in line, draining the fuel into five gallon cans. A couple of others are scouring the cab. You notice the windshield and side windows are riddled with holes, broken glass everywhere. Someone was hurt here. You guess that they probably died. This is not your problem. You continue your journey.
The six lane highway you are traveling is separated by a large sandy median. Cars and trucks for any number of reasons, routinely cut across the median strip and drive straight at the oncoming traffic. At times, even entire convoys cut across the median and drive in the oncoming traffic lanes. They may have good reason; They may have learned of some danger ahead on their side of the highway. Every twenty or thirty miles you encounter highway check points with Iraqi Police (IP), Iraqi National Guard (ING), U.S. Military or some combination of these. Often the checkpoints are setup in the shade of a highway overpass.
Frequently, just past the checkpoints, will be a collection of five or ten 10x10 shacks, aka: Haji shops. They are each separated from each other by about 20 yards. Vehicles passing through the checkpoints will pull over and shop with the vendors for food, drinks or whatever. It is a cause for some alarm when a checkpoint is hastily established and has no Haji shops nearby. Insurgents and bandits will sometimes kill the police and dress in their uniforms or simply just put on uniforms and set up a checkpoint. The war zone savvy contractor will look for certain signs that often reveal the authenticity of the men dressed in police uniforms. It would be inappropriate to reveal those indicators in this book.
Haji shops exploit the opportunities created by the traffic flow near checkpoints. If one or two shops are setup alone near an overpass where there is no checkpoint, it is yet another cause for alarm. Isolated Haji shops at the edge of road have, on occasion, been found to contain rocket propelled grenades(RPGs) that are linked to a trip wire running under the overpass. The trip wire is rigged to fire several RPGs simultaneously. If you don’t detect the trap, you will surely be blown apart. You quickly become suspicious of everything.
Convoys of trucks are rolling this highway constantly. Many have twenty or thirty trucks. A few have been known to run over a hundred vehicles. Some are purely military vehicles with Army escorts and others are civilian trucks with Army or private security contractor escorts. Smart convoy drivers will keep their vehicles spaced 75 to 100 meters apart. They know that when an attack occurs, this separation will reduce the possibility of losing two trucks from a single explosion. Convoys try to roll at high rate of speed. Insurgents will have a harder time hitting them if they are moving fast.
The security elements (military or civilian) often wave at one another when passing in opposite directions. Everyone is scanning the surrounding area with automatic rifles and machine guns poised to fire.
Far out in the desert you make out the faint image of a tractor trailer billowing up dust as it moves away from the main highway. You deduce that bandits culled out the vehicle from another convoy, shot the driver, and stole the truck. No one is in pursuit. There is a good chance that the driver directly behind the stolen truck was helpless to tell anyone that a truck was being taken. His convoy just rolled on. He rolled on. Even if his security elements saw the theft, there is not much they can do. They certainly can’t abandon forty trucks and go chasing across the desert after the thieves. Shit happens in Iraq.
In southern Iraq, the military escorts may be American, British, Australian, Japanese, Italian or Iraqi. As you go further north, the military units are almost exclusively American or Iraqi. Private contractors, like Blackwater, Hart, TDL, Crescent, and dozens of others run the whole country without regard to geography. These firms are a highly flexible resource providing expedient solutions to ever changing war zone requirements.
As you proceed further north, you begin to encounter more non-lethal threats, such as children or adults throwing rocks. This might seem benign, but given your level of tension, a rock smashing against your vehicle can be quite unnerving. The vegetation picks up now and the temperature drops a few degrees At first, even a few scattered trees and bushes are a welcome site, but then you realize that the brush and trees afford the insurgents more hiding places. Your ability to see a head bob over a berm or out of ditch is diminished. You’d rather have the bland desert back. Better to be bored with the scenery, but alive.
While driving the roads every fiber of your body is on full scale alert. You watch for broken down vehicles on the side of the road. They may be filled with explosives. The trouble is that there are hundreds of incapacitated vehicles on the highways. You watch for vehicles with tinted windows full of young men. Insurgents frequently travel in such groups and often execute a drive-by shooting of your vehicle. You look for trucks and cars that sag too much in the rear end, they may be loaded with explosives. You watch for vehicles that won’t leave the center lane of the road, they may be straddling the center lane because they suspect or know a bomb is just ahead. Iraqi citizens know to stay in the right or left lane. The center lane is primarily for use by convoys.
A garbage bag alongside the road, a dirt mound, a patch of new pavement, a pothole, a clump of tires, or a pile of brush may all be disguises for roadside bombs. Explosives, aimed at the ground, have been found in the crook of a tree branch. Dog carcasses have been packed with explosives and propped up to appear to be alive. They are placed along the shoulder of a road and detonated with a remote triggering device.
At times even donkeys are wondering the area packed with explosives. The donkeys nibble on the vegetation in the ditches alongside the highway. When a target vehicle rolls by, the donkey, the truck, and the men inside blow up together. Afterwards, it is a challenge to distinguish whose parts belong to whom. The military even has a name for these devices: donkey borne improvised explosives (DBIEDs). The ruses are endless.
Insurgents routinely plant explosives on the backside of guardrails. The guard rail on the outside corner at the bend of a highway exit ramp has often been selected as a location to plant bombs. Trucks have blown up coming off the ramp and as other trucks pass on the inside corner, they too have been blown up by a second set of hidden explosives. “Bait” devices appearing to be an explosive are sometimes planted on the highway. A convoy will slow, stop, or change lanes to avoid the “bait” and will either run into the actual explosives or come under attack from hidden insurgents. At times the insurgents open fire from both sides of the road.
If a vehicle mixes into the middle of your convoy and doesn’t make a dash to get ahead or fall behind, you have a high potential of a developing insurgent attack. If a pickup truck approaches at high speed from a perpendicular desert road, you need to brace yourself. The Iraqi people are well informed about how to, and when not to, approach a convoy. They are supposed to stay at least 100 meters away from convoys. Many don’t. The rules of engagement (ROE) permit the military and security contractors to open fire when a vehicle has been warned to stay back and continues to close with them. It is a testimony to self- restraint on the part of both military units and American civilian security contractors that more innocent people have not lost their lives for foolishly ignoring these rules.
The sight of human bodies lying on the road near a blown-up vehicle can have a disarming effect. You have to fight your natural tendency to rush forward to help in whatever manner might be possible. It is not uncommon that the bodies have been planted there by insurgents and subsequently booby trapped. It defies human inclinations that you must first recon the area to make certain an insurgent is not lurking nearby with an explosive detonator in hand. Even when approaching the seemingly lifeless bodies, care must be taken. This could be a suicide bomber wearing a military uniform with and an explosive vest under his shirt. Finally, when moving a body, you have to be alert for grenades, ready to explode, that may have been planted among them. Nothing is sacred in this war—nothing.
Whether you live or die in Iraq is often about personal friendships and not so much about whose side you represent. Iraq is full of people from different religious, ethnic, and tribal, origins. Simply being on the same side of the war is insignificant to many Iraqis. They strongly resent anything that smells of American arrogance. If you are a smart, you will go out of your way to befriend everyone you can along your route. You will pass this way again and again and this won’t be the last you see of these people. There is a good chance the day will come that your effort at being a “friend” may well save your life.
From the haji shop vendor to the border guards, the police, the Iraqi soldiers, the shepherds, and the kids, they are all important to your success. Periodically, along this drive, you stop and talk with them. You need to get to know them. They may not be inclined to help an American, but they will often help a friend. Friendship in Muslim countries is a powerful cultural phenomenon that, on a comparative scale, is not found in western society. A token gesture, a smile, a wave, a pause to ask them about their day promotes invaluable relationships. Your Iraqi friends will tell you things about the enemy and help you through complicated negotiations that would otherwise be a nightmare.
In the Middle East, most Arabs believe and practice an ancient tribal code of honor known as Dakhil. That is, if you seek the help of another and he commits to protecting you; regardless of your transgressions, under the traditions of Dakhilyour protector must, even at risk to his own life, provide you security. He cannot allow any harm to befall you. You need only ask for Dakhil. If you have been extended protection under Dakhil and are betrayed, the betrayer will be forever disgraced by his family and his tribe.
In the cities you look to see if people are congregating on one side of the street and not the other. They know what you don’t. If you are in a traffic circle and the vehicle in front of you stops for no apparent reason, all your senses go on edge. One of your greatest fears is getting stuck in a traffic jam. A stopped vehicle is a target. Hundreds of insurgents drive the roads looking for “targets of opportunity”. This is especially true of stopped vehicles with Americans in them. Perhaps the insurgents believe that their heavenly rewards will be greater if they terminate the life of an American. It doesn’t take long to become exhausted from the intensity of the situation and the adrenaline drain. You cannot allow yourself to become complacent. Complacency is a death knell. There are no naps on this road trip.
At night you will see fires burning throughout the desert. Some are burn-offs from oil wells. Others are the result of oil pipeline attacks, and some are the remnants of blown up vehicles that may be a dozen or so miles ahead of you. Some fires are from tires placed on the road to soften the highway for a later emplacement of an IED. The insurgents are busy throughout the night. At times they will bury as many as twenty- seven explosive devices in a row. The coalition forces are busy too. The war never sleeps.
In a bold change of tactics, the Army has begun to run convoys at night. Convoy commanders and drivers have developed expedient methods of enhancing security for night drives. Some military vehicles with circular headlights have used duct tape over their lights to convert them into rectangles. The reason is that when insurgents see a circular headlight approaching, they know they have a military target to shoot at. The rectangular light might just fool them for a few minutes. Still other convoys are driving with “blackout drive” (small catlike lights) or no lights what-so-ever. They are using night vision goggles. This can be pretty exciting when a 100,000 pounds of steel crosses into your lane and is headed dead at you with no lights and a joint closing speed of a hundred miles an hour.
A mile or two ahead you see a burst of light followed by a dull thump sound. You see a few streaks of light crisscrossing the horizon. You know the flash and thump was an artillery, mortar, or possibly and IED. You know the streaks of light are bullet tracers. Someone is shooting at someone. Your fear factor skyrockets. You begin to slow down. This is not good. Slowing down exposes your vehicle to well-aimed enemy fire. You speed up. Stopping is not an option. You reason that stopping at night on an Iraqi highway is more dangerous than driving into the potential maelstrom ahead. Your eyes are a big as saucers as you peer into the black desert landscape and scan the fireworks on the horizon. It’s an eerie feeling to know that a few miles ahead, someone may be dying, and others are engaged in fighting for their life, and you are headed in their direction.
Ahead you see orange and green sticks being waved in circles. As you get closer you realize this is a checkpoint and the Iraqi police are waving chemical lights in their hands. At least you hope these are Iraqi police. You slow down and talk with the police. They give you a heads up on the enemy activity ahead and ask if you can spare a few extra chemlights. You give them a dozen from your stash and a few bottles of cold water. They smile. They thank you. They wave you on through the check point. For them, this is as routine as some cop in the states advising you of ice on the bridges ahead. Everything is relative. And after all, this is a war zone.
A couple miles further you see a cluster of military humvees along the road. In the darkness you make out the silhouettes of some Bradley fighting vehicles in the desert. Overhead you hear the whop-whop-whop sound of helicopters, circling in the night sky. They may be gunships, or at least one may be a medical evacuation chopper. Several soldiers standing on the road, wave you through and motion for you to proceed slowly.
About a hundred yards off to your right flank, a 50 caliber machine gun lets off a burst of fire at some distant target. The unintelligible sound of radios crackling can be heard everywhere. You see a group of men carrying a stretcher bolting through the darkness. You have no idea what just happened. You only know it involved good guys and bad guys. If this were a highway in New Jersey, you’d be a gawker. Not here! You have only one thought: “I want to get through this area.” You clear the area and put the pedal to the metal.
It’s about midnight now and you are entering Baghdad. Curfew began at 9 pm and the streets are deserted. Every now and then you see the figure of a person dart through the shadows. You suspect they are insurgents. You watch the overpasses more carefully than ever. The streets are void of the thousands of people, kids, cars, and bicycles that clog the roadways during the day. You pass ornate palaces and mosques and wonder whose inside. You wonder who’s watching you. You wonder if some street ahead will be blocked by insurgents.
Some buildings are decimated shells and others look like they were built last week. The city is a contrast of poverty and wealth, destruction, and construction. Military combat vehicles scurry about the deserted streets as if they were late for an appointment. Every one of them takes notice of you. Some point their weapons in your direction. At times you fear they are going to open fire. You are stopped frequently. You don’t dare move without their direction. Nerves are on edge and fingers are on triggers.
North of Baghdad you enter the city of Baqubah. A local power generation plant was blown up yesterday and there are no streetlights. Without power, the homes are pitch black. This elevates your fear level again. You ponder that perhaps the blackout was just phase one of an enemy plan. You start wondering whether or not you are driving into hell’s kitchen. For a short time, you decide to turn off your headlights. Tense and exhausted you drive as quietly as possible through the town. You feel like your creeping through a sleeping snake pit hoping not to disturb any of the snakes. Finally, you arrive at Camp Anaconda, a large military base just south of Tikrit. Just the sight of it causes you to take a deep breath. Until this moment, you hadn’t realized how tired you were. Now you can hardly wait for a simple pleasure like a cot to sleep on.
As you approach the main gate the guards go into full scale alert. A half dozen automatic rifles and machine guns are ready to fire on you. You move very slowly through the zig-zag maze that is the entry check point (ECP). You listen for and follow every direction from the soldiers at the gate. Finally, you open your vehicle glove compartments and center console, and slowly step out of the vehicle leaving all doors open and your hands visible. The guards approach cautiously. They check identification and inspect your vehicle with mirrors and dogs. When you are cleared to proceed, you feel as if the guards are looking at you like you are some poor, crazy, fool. And maybe you are.
The expression on the faces of the gate guards suggests that they are asking, “Who in their right mind would be driving through Iraq in middle of the night?” By now, you’re probably asking yourself the same question. You’ll catch six hours sleep, and at “0 Dark Thirty” in the morning you will be headed south for Kuwait or maybe the Jordanian border. It’ll be just another day driving through the war zone. Perhaps you will stop for the night at Cedar II (Talil Air Base) just north of Basra. There you can grab a meal and another couple hours rest. As one MPRI contractor put it, “Driving the roads through Iraq is like placing your life in a crap shoot. You just never know which day your luck will run out.” As you close your eyes, you think to yourself: “Well, at least Cedar II has a great mess hall”.