Politics & Policy

The Roads Are Hell

Dangerous roadtrips in Iraq.

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.

#ad#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 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.


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.


Tampa is an interesting road: Like all of the main supply routes in Iraq, much of Tampa is isolated and running between cities, villages, several Iraqi Army checkpoints, and the occasional cluster of thatched huts, across seemingly endless miles of desert. Consequently, the highway is difficult — perhaps impossible — to secure.

#ad#The terrorists and insurgent leaders train their recruits on the art of setting up IEDs and blowing up Coalition vehicles on Route Tampa south of Baghdad. The more experienced guerrillas set up IEDs on Tampa north of Baghdad.

Either way, Coalition forces get hit regularly on Tampa, and not only with IEDs.


The enemy attacks vehicles with everything from buried landmines to IEDs, which are placed beneath bridges, in road culverts, on guardrails, in bushes, trashcans, garbage bags, old tires, abandoned vehicles, and rotting animal corpses. IEDs have even been placed in trees and on powerlines, which when detonated have been known to decapitate the gunners on the tops of vehicles.

Other enemy weapons used against Coalition convoys include rifles (for snipers), vehicle-borne suicide bombers, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Actually, the term “grenade” is a misnomer, because the rocket is actually tipped with a shaped-charge that can penetrate much more than a grenade.

Then there is the heart-stoppingly terrifying EFP (explosively formed projectile or explosively formed penetrator). EFPs — which are appearing in increasingly greater numbers in Iraq — are remotely triggered military-class warheads that may be positioned like any IED, but they are designed to destroy medium armor, are capable of punching through just about anything, and they often do. It is widely believed that the EFPs in Iraq are originating in Iran.


The day before the three-year anniversary of the Fallujah killings, I went out on a half-day highway mission on Route Irish. The day after the anniversary, I went out on an all-day operation on Routes Tampa and Kiev. Both missions were in a Rock, a fully armored highway fortress bristling with guns, including two belt-fed machineguns on top. Despite their size, Rocks are highly maneuverable and capable of burst-speeds over 85 mph. The vehicle, built by Granite Global Services is the brainchild of former U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Berman, who was operating as a private security contractor in Iraq on the day of the Fallujah killings.

The four men killed were Berman’s friends. He escorted the bodies home, made the decision to leave the security business, and committed to building a vehicle that would prevent another Fallujah from ever happening again.

“I had to do something,” he tells NRO. “And if you look at what’s happened in Iraq since Fallujah, we’ve lost by far more troops and civilians to roadside bombs and vehicular accidents than we have to combative ground fire.”

Features of Berman’s vehicles — the Rock and the soon-to-be-delivered “Rock Security Vehicle” and “Rock Mine Ballistic” — include heavy armor and a V-shaped hull (exclusively on the Rock SV and MB) to deflect mine and IED blasts; also RPG and nuclear-biological-chemical protection; ballistic glass; twin gun top mounts for 360 degrees of fighting capability; lots of interior space for soldiers, and plenty of speed.

Granite’s vehicles aren’t the only armored combat vehicles and “gun trucks” currently running up and down the highways of Iraq, though the men who ride in the Rocks — and get hit regularly by IEDs and sniper fire — swear by them. No one riding in a Rock has ever been killed by an IED.

Other armored off-road and urban assault-vehicle manufacturers — some perhaps hoping to replace the up-armored Humvee — include Force Protection, which manufactures the Cougar and the Buffalo; General Dynamics with its RG-31; Labock Technologies with its Rhino Runner; and Textron Systems and its Dingo 2. There are also varieties of armored SUVs, limousines, vans, and buses on the highways. The U.S. Defense Department also has its own vehicle labs and proving grounds where in-house designs are being developed and tested.


Much of Baghdad, the wild west of Al Anbar, points north, a few places south, and all of the main supply routes are dangerous: From my vantage point in Baghdad, firefights and bombings were almost constant. Helicopters were routinely shot at, and jets were often heard screaming over the city. When the fighting was close, usually at night, the adrenaline surged. When it was distant, it devolved into something like “white noise.” But the greatest direct threat to Coalition forces (military and civilian) in Iraq was — and continues to be — the highway ambush.

One U.S. soldier I spoke with, said, “one minute you might be daydreaming or watching a sandstorm on the horizon: The next second you’re fighting for your life.”

Another soldier told me he travels the main supply routes as a gunner with his head sticking out the top of a Humvee for hours at a time, six or seven days a week, and for months at a stretch.

“Am I scared? Yes,” he said. “But the fear keeps me alert and focused.”

Every road trip is dangerous in Iraq. Several hours before my sixth trip on Irish, an IED was discovered and disarmed. The insurgents had placed it on the only bridge the Ford Excursion I was traveling in was slated cross.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

W. Thomas Smith Jr. — 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. ...

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