Three years ago — March 31, 2004 — four Blackwater USA security contractors were escorting a truck convoy through the Iraqi city of Fallujah when they were suddenly attacked by guerrillas armed with automatic weapons. Driving in two thin-skinned armor-less Mitsubishi Pajeros,the four men didn’t have a chance. Their SUVs were riddled with small arms fire, then doused with gasoline and torched.
The bodies were then dragged from the vehicles and mutilated (at least one version of the attack has one of the men still alive, pulled from his vehicle, badly wounded, and begging for his life as an angry mob pelted him with bricks until he was dead): One body was chained to a car and dragged through the streets. Two others were hanged on a bridge over the Euphrates River.
The ambush — perhaps the most widely publicized of the war — would lead to the now-famous U.S. Marine and Army siege of Fallujah and ultimate assault on the city.
It also dramatically changed the dynamics of the war; spawning a new insurgent tactic of targeting vehicles on the highway, altering travel procedures for Coalition military units and paramilitary security contractors, putting a premium on armored vehicles and new vehicle designs, and developing new battle tactics for countering highway ambushes.
MY FIRST IRAQI ROAD TRIP My initial experience traveling Iraq’s highways began a few weeks ago — a couple of hours after landing at Baghdad International Airport — when I loaded my bags into the back of an armored Chevy Suburban (one of a convoy, including two Suburbans, two Land Cruisers, and one Pajero — the same type of vehicle the Blackwater contractors had been killed in), donned body armor and a helmet, and then gathered with others around the convoy commander for a briefing. As I mentioned at National Review Online’s “The Tank,” the commander, a security contractor with London-based ArmorGroup, detailed who would ride in what vehicles, who would drive, who would serve as vehicle commander (the guy on the passenger side), what to do if we were ambushed, which vehicles would “punch through the ambush,” which would “provide fire support,” and what to do if the vehicle we were riding in became disabled.
At that point everyone climbed into the SUVs for the trip out on Route Irish.
Everyone except me was armed with everything from AK-47 assault rifles, to M-4 carbines, to HK submachine guns, various pistols, and smoke grenades: Anything we needed to defend ourselves if ambushed.
And there was a greater chance that we would be ambushed than not.
I noticed my vehicle had IED (improvised explosive device) blast damage and bullet holes all over the outer skin, and bullet indentions peppered the blastproof windshield and windows. In fact, all the vehicles in the convoy had been shot multiple times.
Everything is no-nonsense in Iraq. There are security rules to be sure, and as a journalist, I am always an unarmed noncombatant. But being in such an environment — and as a former Marine, having the skills to defend myself — I asked my vehicle commander: “If things get really bad, and a man is down and unable to use his weapon, am I free to pick up his weapon and help defend us?”
Of course that might violate what it means to be an objective journalist who is not supposed to participate in the events he or she is covering. But Iraq is different. If you lose the fight, you lose your head.
After I asked the question, my vehicle commander tightened the chinstrap of his helmet, checked his carbine, and turned toward me. “I can’t authorize you the use of a weapon,” he said, “But if things get that bad, you need to do what needs to be done.”
The journey took us beyond the airport onto Route Irish — described by some as “the world’s most dangerous highway” — toward the relatively secure Green Zone (affectionately known as Emerald City), seven miles away. Then bypassing the gate leading into the GZ, we drove another two-miles to the Baghdad neighborhood where I would stay for the next several days, still in the dangerous Red Zone.
NORTH AND SOUTH Though it is not the gauntlet of burning vehicles it was during the first two years after the Fallujah killings, Route Irish is still dangerous. “[Irish] remains ‘high risk’ for transiting,” ArmorGroup officer Bill Shaw tells NRO. “[But once on any of] the open roads, it is extremely dangerous.”
Presently, the most dangerous Iraqi highways are Route Mobile (which transits Baghdad, running west past Fallujah and Ramadi all the way to the Jordanian border) and Route Tampa (which runs from Baghdad south toward and through Kuwait, and then above Baghdad to points north).
During my time in Iraq, I traveled quite a bit on Tampa, spending hours on it during one operation that took me toward An Numaniyah in the south.