BAGHDAD--As Capt. Mike Drew led his patrol slowly down Baghdad's notorious airport road, a man came running toward him across the median, waving a small American flag. Drew called his patrol to a halt and got out of his humvee. The man said he had driven to Camp Victory, the U.S. base next to the airport, for a $3 haircut. He was on his way back to the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy is located, when a convoy of trucks sped past his BMW. A gunner in the convoy fired a .50-caliber gun into the hood of the car. "I stuck my hand out the window, waving this flag, shouting, 'I'm an American!' "the man told Drew. "And he still shot me."
The highway connecting the Baghdad airport with the Green Zone--what the military calls Route Irish--has come to be known by many westerners in Iraq as "the road of death" and "the most dangerous road in the world." Late last year, insurgent attacks prompted the State Department and the British government to bar staffers from using the road, requiring helicopter transport between the airport and the Green Zone. Private security consultants recommend travel only in armored cars. As a result, the airport road became a symbol of the military's inability to provide security in Iraq.
New reality. Today, though, the major threat on the road may no longer be snipers, insurgents with grenade launchers, or suicide bombers. What drivers most need to fear: trigger-happy security contractors. "The most dangerous thing on Route Irish is its legend," says Lt. Col. Geoffrey Slack, whose 1-69 Infantry from the New York National Guard patrols the road. "As a result of its legend, civilian contractors fire indiscriminately."
To fight the perception--and the reality--of danger, the military has assigned a battalion to patrol the roughly 7 miles of airport road. Multiple humvees cruise back and forth round-the-clock. It has had an effect. There were 25 rocket-propelled-grenade attacks on military vehicles in October and November, which wounded two people. In December and January, there were just five--none hit their targets. According to military records, no one has been wounded by a roadside bomb on the highway since October, despite the fact that improvised explosive devices continue to plague the rest of the city. Although reports of small-arms fire remain high, the military says the accounts are unreliable. Security details hear gunfire from an American test-firing range and often take it for an attack. This month, two convoys of security contractors reported exchanging fire with insurgents; it turned out they were firing at each other. Car bombs have been the most deadly form of attack on the highway. From September through November, there were 18 suicide car bombs that killed 11 and wounded 59, according to the military. In December and January, four car bombs killed one and wounded 16.
Lt. Col. Todd Morrow, whose 1st Cavalry Division battalion formerly oversaw the road, took a page from the broken- windows school of policing. He cleared the median and roadsides of the rubble that added to a sense of disorder and allowed bombers a place to hide. He had his patrols check every car that broke down on the highway to make sure there really was a maintenance problem. And if a bomb went off, the Americans cleaned up the wreckage before the television crews arrived. "If you can stop the pictures," Morrow says, "the suicide bombers will go someplace else."
Now, throughout the afternoon hours, the road is jammed with Iraqis. There are also regular convoys, some protected by soldiers in humvees and others with private security guards dressed in black body armor who peer out menacingly from the backs of Chevrolet Suburbans. By the time darkness falls, the road empties. Curfew is 11 p.m., but the highway is deserted well before then. Iraqis who live near the road say they are uncomfortable around American military vehicles and claim the soldiers shoot first and ask questions later. Iraqis say the road is particularly dangerous at night, when military convoys drive very fast and often without lights. "It's now like a military road," says one nearby resident. "It's no longer really a civil road."
Contractors and fresh-off-the-plane soldiers fear the road by reputation, says Slack. "We will not stop these guys [from shooting] until we get rid of this idea of 'the road of death.' I want the Disney company to paint me a big sign that says: 'The safest road in the world: Put your gun away.' "
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