Politics & Policy

The World’s Deadliest Highways

Standing up a new Iraqi highway patrol.

In a recent telephone conversation with former U.S. Navy Commander Richard Marcinko, founder of SEAL Team Six and best-selling author of Rogue Warrior, I asked him about the dangers facing civilian contractors in Iraq. Almost without hesitation, Marcinko began talking about roads and highways, and the military and civilian truckers who have to drive up and down them several times each week. “He [the driver] is not going to make that run every day,” Marcinko says. “But when he does, somebody is going to shoot at him.”

”Once he starts that run up from Kuwait he’s going to come up on villages where the road is no wider than a sidewalk,” Marcinko continues, “and he has to keep on rolling. He can’t stop. He knows if he does, an IED [improvised explosive device] or an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] is going to get him. He’s basically running a gauntlet every time he floors that big tractor-trailer up the highway.”

Marcinko’s words don’t ring hollow to anyone who has traveled Iraqi roads or shipped goods up the same. In fact, twice I’ve sent shipments of books to the troops. Both shipments were attacked. A small portion of one got through. The remainder, according to 1st Lieutenant Eric Knapp of the 1st Marine Division, were struck “by small arms fire and RPGs and burned to ashes in the ambush.”

Simply put, the safe, ribbon-smooth highways we take for granted here in America are nothing like the highways in Iraq. And someone has to secure the latter.

That task is increasingly falling to the members of the Iraqi Highway Patrol (IHP)–a fledgling force of some 600 paramilitary-trained policemen organized under Iraq’s ministry of interior. Unlike patrolmen and troopers here in the U.S., the Iraqis don’t wear Smokey-the-bear “campaign hats” or drive super-charged sedans. Instead, they wear helmets and drive small pickup trucks fitted with machine guns (only a handful of vehicles are currently in service, but officials are hoping to field a 500-vehicle fleet over the next few months).

Currently the men and vehicles operate out of 14 Highway Patrol stations. IHP Commissioner Maj. Gen. Ali Al Khazali says he “dreams of stations all over Iraq with their own control and power.” Realistically, he hopes to draw on his $25 million budget to establish 34 stations and six border-entry-point barracks within the year. But far more important than buying trucks and building stations is recruiting and training new troopers.

New recruits with prior military or police experience must attend a three-week IHP course. Raw recruits must hit the ground running for eight weeks. All are taught patrolling and law-enforcement techniques, respect for human rights, and highway pursuit tactics. They also develop close-quarters combat and weapons skills with a keen focus on combating the insurgency.

U.S. Marines, Army special forces, and military policemen are currently training the IHP, cranking out between 400-500 new troopers per month. On February 6, the interim IHP Academy in Al Mehaweel, south of Baghdad, graduated 49 new Highway Patrolmen. On February 9; and another 58 joined the ranks of the IHP, graduating from the Al Asad Police Academy during a ceremony at Camp Ripper, an American base in the Al Anbar Province.

The ministry plans to increase the size of its force substantially by the time voters go to the polls–for a second time–to elect a permanent constitutional government in December 2005. Several thousand Iraqi troopers are slated to be on hand to patrol highways and man checkpoints, thus creating a greater sense of security for Iraqi voters living in rural areas. More troopers also means soldiers and policemen will spend less time on highway security and more time providing security and responding to threats in heavily populated voting districts.

The IHP is slated to be at full strength of 6,300 men by July 2006. Achieving that number won’t be easy. Recruiting is tough, as is the training. And once on the force, the troopers find themselves operating in that country’s most dangerous and isolated environs.

“The Iraqi Highway Patrol will be providing both law enforcement and security along the highways and major roadways here,” says Capt. Burrell D. Parmer, spokesman for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. “They will also respond to incidents involving insurgents and terrorists as well as car bombs and attacks on convoys.”

Equally dangerous duties include providing convoy escort, sweeping highways for IEDs, arresting car-jackers, and serving as back-up units during commando raids against guerrillas operating in the border provinces.

Some say patrolling the highways is more dangerous than patrolling Iraq’s residential neighborhoods and commercial districts. “When the insurgents plant the roadside bombs, they do so at night and mostly in the areas where the highway patrol will be operating,” says Cpl. Matthew Groppi, a military policeman with the Wisconsin-based 330th Military Police Detachment, U.S. Army Reserve. “These areas are out in the backcountry away from the cities.”

Recently returned from Iraq, Groppi was wounded in a car-bomb explosion near Mosul that killed two of his fellow MPs and blew out the eye of a third. In Iraq, he says, there are unique risks faced by both Iraqi highway patrolmen and policemen that Iraqi soldiers often do not share.

“Unlike, the Iraqi soldier who typically lives on a base, the Iraqi highway patrolmen and policemen have to drive home every night,” he says. “They live within the community they work, just like law-enforcement officers do in the U.S. So, the terrorists have more knowledge of–and easier access to–Iraqi cops and their families.”

The upside, according to Groppi, is that “Iraqi communities are so close-knit, that most of the cops feel they can trust the people in their particular neighborhoods. But there’s always that case where they are followed home or followed to work.”

George Sheldon, a former Pennsylvania police chief and author of Their Last Words: A Tribute to Soldiers Who Lost Their Lives in Iraq, says, “The policing of Iraq has to be more dangerous than any of us can imagine. While we all think about the dangers facing our soldiers, imagine what the Iraqi cops have to deal with on a daily basis. From unexploded ordinance to everyone carrying a weapon. Yet they still have the problems that face every society–from theft to assaults, from fights to homicides.”

Sheldon adds, “For the Iraqi cops that will function as our state troopers, the challenges are incomprehensible. The Iraqi roads are just plain scary. I wonder if they even have dependable radios?”

Indeed, radios for the Iraqi forces are sometimes substandard. And far from the cities, many of the country’s communications towers and relay stations have yet to be rebuilt after being destroyed by coalition aircraft. Radio towers also have been prime targets for saboteurs.

Many of the obstacles associated with building and maintaining an Iraqi military force (see here) are the same as those faced by U.S. instructors tasked with developing a special Iraqi police force like the Highway Patrol. Other difficulties and challenges include an inadequate legal system and a nation full of unlicensed drivers.

“None of them have drivers licenses,” says South Carolina Highway Patrolman Carroll Welch, who served in Iraq as a platoon sergeant with the 133rd Military Police Company, South Carolina National Guard. “And you can put any piece of junk on the highway. They ride horses, horse-drawn carriages and wagons. There are all kinds of things you have to look out for on the Iraqi highways. Honestly, it looks like something out of Biblical times.”

Personal tribal loyalties within the IHP ranks could also present problems for American instructors and IHP leaders.

“Many times when we were in a firefight, the Iraqi policemen would break and run,” Welch tells NRO, adding that they did so not out of fear of physical danger but out of community loyalty and an unquestioning respect for the authority of their elders. “They are not going to fight their own people or people from their tribe. Don’t get me wrong, they love the job. They want to do the job. But if their tribal leader or someone else senior to them in their community tells them what to do, they will simply leave you.”

Instructors hope that new entry-level training on cultural issues, ethics, respect for all people in a greater Iraq, and an infusion of a sense of personal responsibility and an appreciation for police authority will eliminate some of the disciplinary problems like breaking and running under fire.

Of course, that doesn’t change the dynamics of good guys and bad guys engaging one-another in armed combat. When asked what the biggest difference was between his highway patrol work in the states, and his military police duties in Iraq, Welch, says it’s a trade-off. “Iraqi roads are far more dangerous, but we were always operating in platoon strength or greater. Here, in the states, we are out there on the road, alone.”

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...


The Latest