ROAD WORK |
December 26, 2006
Highway 10 heads west out of Baghdad, through the suburb of Abu Ghurayb, turning north briefly where it winds its way between the city of Al Falluja and the military Camp Falluja before it resumes it western traverse to Ar Ramadi. After Ar Ramadi the road swings southwest, rolling though open desert to Al Rutbah and then finally the Jordanian border. Today though, I am heading east, out of Ramadi towards Baghdad.
Highway 10 is a six lane divided highway that would look familiar to any American or Western European. It has seen better days, true, but I have seen highways in the US with almost as many problems. Green signs in Arabic and English point the way to various cities, towns, and routes. It is all so familiar, yet alien.
One of my platoons is going to Falluja to support another element. I am going with them to check on their progress and see if I can make their life a little more comfortable. We move out of Camp Ramadi mid-morning. The Route Clearance patrol, like all Coalition Force patrols, brings traffic to a halt. After three years of war it is instinctive to the Iraqi driver: Do not approach a Coalition convoy unless you want to meet the business end of a crew-served weapon.
I imagine being an Iraqi driver: As I approach the entrance and exit to a Coalition military camp I hope that I am able to pass by without a convoy coming out; if I see a convoy coming out I let out an epithet. My trip is going to be much slower now. The truck blocking my way indicates I did not make it past the camp in time. It is going to take much longer now to reach my destination. I curse the coalition for my inconvenience and then shrug. Inshallah.
As we pull out onto Highway 10 I see a few cars start to halt. If they are going to Ramadi they will only have to spend a few kilometers behind us, however if they are going much further their choices are either slow down, or become imaginative in their use of the roads.
It is clear and cold. Hardly a cloud in the sky. We are thankful for the warmth of our vehicles. The mood is almost giddy. After several days of maintenance, this platoon is glad to be back on the road. The chatter in the vehicle revolves around what we see, gossip from the battalion, and anticipated leaves. My presence gives the Soldiers plenty of opportunity to let me know what is going on with them.
"You know what I miss about home, sir?"
"No -- what?"
"Being able to go to Blockbuster and pick up a movie."
"Or just being able to get up and go to the refrigerator," adds another.
"Just being able to walk around in my underwear."
We all chuckle and look back out at the landscape, searching for possible threats.
"Is that new?"
"That gas station."
Sure enough, a new gas station is in operation along Highway 10. It takes up the space a small truck stop would back in the states, and is apparently serving mostly the ubiquitous orange and white taxis one sees everywhere. I recall seeing the early construction stages of this facility, but had thought it a long way from completion, if not an abandoned project. But here it is now, with a small hand-lettered sign in English, servicing at least 30 taxis and the odd private car. Signs of life in the local economy.
My attention is pulled back to the task at hand.
"We have a white rice bag with something in it, right side," crackles through the radio.
"Roger," says the platoon leader in reply. "Push up past the two vehicles in front of us," he says to the driver of our truck. "26 moving."
We find a white rice bag which clearly has something in it. I am reminded of the last time I went with these Soldiers on patrol and found an IED just like this.
The arm operator deftly moves the arm out to interrogate the package. Nothing happens as he pokes and prods. Finally, he decides to pick it up with the arm.
"It's light", he says.
He swings it out to the side so we can all get a better look and evaluate it from the relative safety of our seats in the armored truck. If it was high explosives, it should have fallen out of the rice bag by now. But that's what we thought last time.
"I'm going to shake it."
The bag bounces up and down until it finally falls off and rolls down the embankment and away from the road, harmlessly into the desert. Nothing.
As we begin to move out, I look behind me and see the traffic beginning to pile up behind us. We are like a moving road crew. Except we have provided no way for the traffic to get around us. I don't feel bad, though. Proceed around us at your own risk.
And some Iraqis choose to go around us. They drive off the road to our left or right and make a wide sweep, using a combination of side roads and cross-country driving to get past. We watch the vehicles closely, but they pose no threat to us. They are simply people trying to go about their lives.
We are moving again. The conversation dies down, and we continue to scan for threats and contemplate the landscape. I see sheep herders with their flocks. I am reminded of the Navajo who tend their flocks on an equally hardscrabble landscape. I think of my mom and the landscape of Northern Arizona. People talk about how different we are from the Iraqi people. But mostly what I see is how similar we are.
We continue to roll, kilometer after kilometer, taking our time to scan our sectors, looking for that thing that is out of place. Conversation is limited, but we take time to grab something to eat from our various bags. Items from home are offered up and shared equally. My in-laws have sent a smoked and dried steak, an early Christmas gift I am sure I was supposed to wait to open. I offer some up to the Soldiers with me; not sharing would be the ultimate insult.The driver opens some nuts and we pass them around. A family of four out for a Friday afternoon drive.
Oncoming traffic offers a change of pace. Bus after bus after bus. They are flying flags, the flags of Iraq and various Islamic banners. Shia green and white for purity. I wonder if I will see the black flag for martyrdom. These busses with their banners proclaiming their love of Allah are heading south to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. A point of entry on the far Southern Iraq border has been opened specifically for the Hajj, so the Iraqi faithful can fulfill their obligation, to at least once in their lifetime go to Mecca. The busses remind me of Americans on their way to see a football game. And why not? We have raised football to the level of religion in America. More the same than different.
We are approaching Falluja now -- the next sign says "Falluja next two exits", or something to that effect. We pass over the clover leaf and see the Entry Control Point into the city. Big green road signs direct you to the Exit, or to Baghdad, Samarra, or Basra.
We continue to scan vehicles as they approach us or go around us. We look at old blast holes and other debris by the side of the road. We check here and look there. We find nothing.
Having passed the now empty prison at Abu Ghurayb we are approaching our unmarked turnaround point. Once we reach that point we block off traffic coming the other direction and move over, the long line of traffic behind us relieved to be able to resume normal speed. I wave to some of the people we have held up as they pass. Some stare coldly, others wave back, I hope recognizing that we have provided them a service, even if we have slowed them down.
The mission is almost finished now, just a few more kilometers. We continue to check junk on the side of the road. We would take an IED attack behind us very personally.
Nothing. Finally we enter Camp Falluja. Highway 10 is clear. At least it was when we got off the road, but the insurgency will be back at it again. For now, though, mission complete, and all Badgers safely in their den.